France’s forgotten Afghan spies
A French-led intelligence cell in Afghanistan was kept secret for years – and now France has left its agents behind
For years, France had a large military presence in Afghanistan, with some 70,000 soldiers posted in the country between 2001 and 2014.
In May 2012, French president François Hollande stated clearly that his country should have no combat troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2012. His declaration marked the end of 11 years of war for French soldiers. The last one had left Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Starting in May 2021, three months before the fall of Kabul, France relocated 5,500 Afghans who either worked for the French in Afghanistan (including for the military), or would face harm under the new Taliban regime for other reasons. Two operations, called “ADL” and “Apagan”, were dedicated to this evacuation effort. Both were presented as great successes by President Emmanuel Macron. “You received hundreds of calls of people asking for help and you answered those without sparing your efforts,” he said in October 2021 during a speech in front of the public servants who worked on both operations.
But a new investigation led by Lighthouse Reports, as part of our Left Behind series, indicates that neither of these stances were entirely true. France did in fact have an operation up and running on Afghan soil after 2014. Named “Shamshad”, its goal was to gather intelligence that could be used to protect France’s interests in Afghanistan, including safeguarding French territory from terrorist groups. The operation existed up until 2020 and was run by the French secret service, known as DGSE (General Direction for External Security), which reports to the French ministry of army and ministry of foreign affairs, in partnership with its Afghan counterpart, the National Directorate for Security (NDS). Former Afghan members of the division claim that the French DGSE was even paying their wages – up to $1000 per month.
For months after the Taliban takeover, former members of Shamshad were left behind in Kabul without any support. Most of them faced direct threats and went into hiding. Lighthouse Reports and partners spoke to eight of these former intelligence officers. Some have since been evacuated to France; others have managed to flee to nearby countries such as Iran and India. A number are still hiding in Afghanistan, living in constant fear of retaliation by the Taliban. Their testimony has shed new light on the French military intervention in Afghanistan – but also on France’s flawed evacuation process.
Thanks to advocacy groups, lawyers and members of the Afghan community in Europe, we were able to contact some former members of the Shamshad division. We spent hours interviewing former officers to verify their accounts in Afghanistan, Iran, the UAE, India and France. Some of them were also able to share concrete proof of the work they did with the DGSE, from letters of mission to photographs – which we haven’t published in order to protect their security – as well as the numerous emails they sent to the French ministry of foreign affairs requesting their evacuation.
Since the existence of Shamshad was unknown prior to our work, we investigated and reached out to high-end sources, both in the French army and the Afghan forces, to confirm its existence. According to sources, it was the biggest operation of the DGSE at one point after 2014.
We also investigated the evacuation process itself. According to Afghan sources, only 30 members of Shamshad were evacuated to France. We tried to understand how and why this happened. We discovered that the French ministry of army did hold a list of more than 90 former members of the division before the fall of Kabul, which they sent to the ministry of foreign affairs. But the latter did not act until Spring 2022, six months after the Taliban takeover, despite early notice from lawyers and Shamshad members who warned them of the harms they were facing due to their previous work – and only a small number from the list were evacuated.
An email we have seen shows that on 19 August 2021, four days after the fall of Kabul, one of the agents wrote to the French ambassador in Afghanistan requesting for help. Two weeks later, French lawyers wrote to the French head of DGSE, Bernard Emié, about members of Shamshad who were requesting their help. They received no answer.
For the former Shamshad officers, France did not honour its promises. Abdullah*, like two other officers now living in France, had to wait nearly six months before being evacuated. Others, nearly 30, according to several of their comrades, are still waiting to be evacuated.
Lighthouse Reports, in collaboration with Le Monde and Radio France Internationale (RFI), was able to speak to five officers in this situation, two of whom are still hiding on Afghan territory. “Emmanuel Macron said that we should not let down any colleague who has worked with the French authorities. I hope he will honour his promises,” said Zubeir*, speaking from India. “All my friends are gone, I’m the only one left who is stuck here,” grumbles Noor*, who reached the UAE with his family “on his own” when Kabul fell and is still waiting for his visa.
The risks faced by those former Shamshad agents still in Afghanistan are indisputable. In a report published in November 2021, the NGO Human Rights Watch recounted numerous reprisals already carried out by the new masters of Kabul against former intelligence agents, particularly those who – like former Shamshad agents – collaborated with the West.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
This investigation is the second instalment of our Left Behind series. The first revealed how Afghans promised relocation by the UK were facing torture and death after waiting more than a year to be evacuated.