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Ethnic Component of Afghan ID Cards Still Controversial

Obstacles remain to a scheme aimed at boosting both security and electoral transparency.
By IWPR Afghanistan

Electronic ID cards could reduce crime rates and make Afghanistan’s upcoming parliamentary election fairer, according to speakers at IWPR-organised debates in Ghor, Kunduz, Kapisa, and Baghlan provinces.

The biometric cards known as “tazkira” carry fingerprints and digital photos of the bearer as well as place of residence, personal and family status. Some have been distributed but plans to introduce them for all citizens have been hampered by technical problems and ethnic sensitivities.

Holders are all identified as “Afghan”. The intended meaning is “Afghanistan nationals”, but for some the term implies a reference to ethnic Pashtuns, first and foremost, and hence fails to give proper recognition to Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others.

Officials hope that the new scheme will address problems with electoral fraud as well as security.

“Electronic ID cards can, to some extent, prevent the fraud that previously used to be common,” explained Ahmad Hussein Danishyar, the governor of Du Layna district in Ghor. “It will no longer be possible for people to have multiple tazkiras.”

Bismillah Sediqi, head of criminal investigations at Du Layna police headquarters, said he was also optimistic about the introduction of electronic ID cards.

He said that in the past he had himself witnessed how both criminals and insurgents had exploited the use of fake IDs.

“Electronic IDs can help prevent suicide attacks and criminal activities by people from outside the district,” he said.

In the northeastern Kunduz province, police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini said that the ID cards had already had a massive impact on the fight against crime.

“Since electronic cards began being allocated over the last year, we have caught and arrested many career criminals as a result of biometric checks.”

Abdulhaq Rasuli, a civil society activist, said that the delay in introducing the new system was frustrating ordinary people.

He highlighted sensitivities over the description of all holders as “Afghan”.

“If the distribution of electronic IDs doesn’t begin, and the political issue regarding ethnicity isn’t resolved, people will feel more and more alienated from the government and eventually rise up against the national unity administration,” he said.

In Kapisa, provincial council member Mohammad Aman Mubarez also warned that people were losing trust in the process. He said it was important for ethnicity to be part of the data recorded in each card.

“If ethnicity is included in electronic IDs, it will become which groups makes up the majority or the minority, and this will clear up any ambiguities.”

The government needed the backing of the international community to fully roll out the ID card project, Mubarez added.

“If international support for this process stops, distributing IDs will become impossible,” he said.

Abdul Wahid Kohistani, representing the government department responsible for issuing ID cards, said that security was still too shaky for widespread distribution of the documents. The country’s porous borders were a particular problem, he added.

“Security must first be ensured so that mobile distribution teams can begin their work,” he continued. “If distribution focuses only on the cities and provincial centres and not the villages, the whole process will be a failure.”

In Baghlan province, Abdul Dayan Safi, head of the statistics department of the local police, agreed that logistical problems remained.

“The government has been unable to properly organise population registration departments, so how can we expect electronic IDs to be distributed?” he asked.

However, the head of the registration department for electronic ID cards blamed political considerations for the delay. Zmarai Baher said that 1,100 members of staff had been trained and were all set to deliver the cards.

“We are ready for the distribution of the ID cards, with all modern equipment and systems in place,” he said. “However, the process has not begun due to the disputes over ethnicity and problems with defining the term ‘Afghan’.”

Mohammad Usman Shirzai, a civil society activist, agreed that the delay was a political issue.

“Until a nation is built where all [ethnicities] are viewed as equal, and which has high-quality leadership, this process will not be able to succeed,” he said.

Baghlan provincial council member Bismillah Atash insisted that ethnicity needed to be part of the ID card.

“Government officials should consider what the public wants before they start distributing electronic ID cards,” he said. “Everybody in the country has a specific identity and this should be made clear.”

This report is based on an ongoing series of debates conducted as part of IWPR’s Afghan Youth and Elections programme.