Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Turkmen Claim They're Being Written Off

Change to identification papers and the electoral roll gives the ethnic Turkmen community less of a say than ever.
By Muhammad Tahir
Turkmen community leaders in Afghanistan say they are being deprived of recognition as a separate ethnic group for political reasons.

Turkmen say they are being reassigned to other ethnic categories not so much to discriminate against them, but to boost the numbers of other groups on paper.

Ethnic identity is a contentious subject in Afghanistan. Belonging to a particular group could decide whose side you fought on in the past, and who you are now aligned with politically. Numbers are important, too, since the more there are of a particular group, the more likely they are to be able to press for cultural recognition and rights.

For example, the classification “Kuchi” – a generic term for Afghan nomads – became important last year when the group was made a nationwide “constituency” in its own right for the September parliamentary election. This was done in recognition of the problems of pinning down a transitory population to the province-based constituencies used for the rest of the population. As a result, the Kuchis had ten elected seats earmarked for them in the lower house of parliament, three of them for women.

Sayed Shah, who stood as a candidate for the provincial council in Kunduz and hoped to win support among his fellow ethnic Turkmen, who make up the majority of the population in his home Chardere district, found that many of his potential voters had been spirited away at the stroke of a pen.

Election officers registered thousands of Turkmen in the district of Chardere as Kuchi even though they do not regard themselves as such. That meant they were unable to vote for Sayed Shah, or anyone else in fact, in the provincial ballot.

According to Sayed Shah, there are no nomads among the Turkmen community in his district.

Historically, many of the Turkmen of northern Afghanistan were nomadic, but they are now settled and in any case are culturally quite distinct from the Pashtun nomads who constitute the majority of Kuchi. The special status accorded to nomads in the election was clearly aimed at promoting the political representation of Pashtun Kuchi, many of whom live in great poverty, and the list of winning candidates reflects that intention.

But Sayed Shah says local officials in his area – whom he believes were biased against him - abused the system to knock off a lot of people from the province’s electoral roll.

Sayed Shah has tried in vain to get the Afghan government to look at the re-classification issue, which he says led to him losing the election.

Haji Nabi, a resident of the district, said, “To be frank, the majority of the three million Turkmen in Afghanistan don’t know how to read and write, and as I understand it, local officials exploited this fact and didn’t even consult them when they were preparing their identification cards.

“In addition, for most Turkmen it was their first experience of registering and obtaining such a [voter ID] card.”

Challenged about the re-classification by IWPR, some officials in Chardere district refused to respond; those who tried were at a loss to come up with an explanation.

In this instance, the reason for the apparent manipulation seems to be about manipulating voter numbers for local political reasons, rather than an effort to disenfranchise Turkmen or indeed favour Pashtun nomads.

But as people here begin to realise the future consequences of being shifted to a new category, the move has gone down badly among a community who feel disenfranchised as it is.

The bulk of Afghanistan’s Turkmen population dates from the 1920s, when large numbers of people fled their homeland in what is now Turkmenistan to escape the Soviet takeover there. Scattered across the north of the country, they remained a largely rural community in the shadow of larger ethnic groups. They remained neutral as armed militias associated with the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks battled it out in various wars, and their lack of leverage left them feeling undervalued and forgotten in the recent peacetime political process.

“There is a particular characteristic about the Turkmen community: they never oppose any decision,” said Haji Nabi, adding that being recorded as Kuchis was “only one example of the kind of thing they face because of this behaviour”.

Another practice that appears to be going unchallenged is the classification of ethnic Turkmen as “Afghans” when ID documents are being issued. The practice has been reported in the Aq-Depa, Chardere and other districts of Kunduz.

All citizens of the country, whatever their origin, are correctly known as Afghans. But apart from this definition of nationality and citizenship, ID papers also have a section indicating ethnic origin, where the bearer is marked down as a Pashtun, Tajik or any of a dozen or more peoples who make up this diverse nation.

Bismillah is among residents of Aq-Depa district who are unhappy about what they see as an attempt to reduce their influence as a community. If they become invisible in the official statistics, what chance will they have of claiming fair political representation or cultural rights?

Bismillah said that in the end, he had little option but to accept being classed as “Afghan”, because he needed ID papers to get a job as a village teacher.

He contrasted his own position with that of his friend Faiz Muhammad, from the majority-Pashtun province of Helmand in southern Afghanistan, who recently obtained an identification card with his ethnicity correctly shown as Turkmen.

“If a law about this exists, how could Faiz obtain a card?” he asked. “As I understand it, this practice has only been implemented in areas where minorities form the majority, so as to reduce their numbers in their own areas.”

Asked why Turkmen were been re-designated as “ethnic Afghans”, Aq-Depa’s local government chief Muhibullah Khan said he was acting on instructions from above as part of an attempt to build greater national unity.

Muhibullah Khan cited the Afghan constitution in support of his policy, although the document in fact talks of an Afghan nation with diverse ethnic components.

There is some hope this issue will be raised at national level, as the secretary of the Afghan parliament, Sardar Mohammad Rahman Oghli, seems to be suffering similar problems. Rahman Oghli, an ethnic Uzbek, has reportedly refused to accept the ID card issued to him for reasons similar to those of Bismillah. After raising the matter in parliament in March, he has continued to campaign against the practice.

Muhammad Tahir is a Prague-based journalist and writer.

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