KABUL — When the new Afghan national ID card was introduced by President Ashraf Ghani at a recent palace ceremony, it was not so much the debut of a technological advance as the denouement of a long battle over old political and ethnic enmities.
The fight over the “e-taskira,” as the biometric card is known, has dragged on since Ghani took office in 2015. After a fraud-plagued election, the new president promised to produce a new identity document that would unite the country and make it almost impossible to steal or falsify votes at the polls.
Yet despite the evident virtues of a foolproof ID card in a country where many adults cannot write and use only one name, the e-taskira has triggered endless suspicion, conspiracy theories and shouting matches over such seemingly simple decisions as whether the card should designate “Afghan” as the nationality for all Afghan citizens.
In essence, the card has become a high-tech proxy for the unresolved conflicts that drove Afghanistan to civil war in the early 1990s, sweeping the extremist Taliban movement to power as the country deteriorated into interethnic savagery and chaos.
No one has come to blows yet, but heated political battles over whether and how to identify cardholders by ethnicity and “nationality”— a term commonly used here to mean one’s tribe — have disrupted and delayed production of the new cards for several years. At one point, a batch of several million newly minted cards had to be thrown out and redesigned.
On the surface, the official version of the card appeared to be a compromise. It described every citizen as an “Afghan” by nationality, as stated in the constitution, while allowing each one to choose an ethnic identity from any of the 14 groups listed in the charter as well. The largest of those is Pashtun, followed by Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek.
But even during the long-awaited palace rollout Feb. 16 — where Ghani, his wife, Rula Ghani, and his second vice president, Sarwar Danish, signed up for the first three cards — controversy continued to rage inside and outside the government.
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive and Ghani’s governing partner, did not appear at the event and called for the announcement to be delayed, warning that it could precipitate a political crisis. The ceremony was attended by Ghani’s aides and some cabinet ministers but boycotted by others from ethnic minorities or loyal to Abdullah.
“The government should not create problems among the people by issuing decrees that contravene the people’s will,” Abdullah said at a separate public ceremony the same day. “In this critical situation, a non-calculated word and a non-calculated move against the people can create a big challenge. We should not try to go from crisis to crisis.”
The “non-calculated word” was “Afghan.” Leaders of the large Tajik-led party Jamiat-i-Islami — to which Abdullah belongs — objected to the use of “Afghan” as a universal nationality, because it has historically been synonymous with “Pashtun,” the numerically dominant tribe that ruled the country for three centuries.
They accused Ghani, a Pashtun who plans to run for reelection next year, of using his executive powers for political gain after he overruled a law passed by parliament in 2015 — and originally signed by him — that said the cards would not use the word “Afghan” or mention ethnic background at all.
The harshest reaction came from Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful and wealthy governor of Balkh province and a Jamiat leader. He has refused to relinquish the governorship since the president tried to fire him in December, and he is now expected to challenge Ghani in the presidential race.
At a recent gathering of supporters, Atta warned that distributing cards with the word “Afghan” as the universal nationality would “divide the country in two parts” and bring “the dangerous smell of deadly fights and disintegration.” The former militia leader has made past threats to unleash violent protests unless Jamiat is given more power and perks.
Public reaction to the new card was mixed. Many Afghans agreed it was valuable tool to reduce voter fraud and provide an accurate count of ethnic populations. With no national census conducted since the 1970s, groups have inflated their numbers to enhance political clout. Some dismissed the contretemps over the word “Afghan” as overblown.
“If there are those who do not like to be named as Afghans, then they should leave Afghanistan,” said Abdul Qadir Qalatwal, a Pashtun legislator from the south. But Fawzia Koofi, a liberal lawmaker from the north, said the original law agreed on in parliament should have been implemented. “Afghanistan needs a standard ID card with no mention of ethnicity or nationality,” she said.
Palace officials said the decision to use the term “Afghan” was based strictly on the constitution and should be respected by all citizens. But Abdullah’s comment reflected growing concern about tensions between majority Pashtuns and various ethnic minorities in the run-up to elections, in which ethnic identity and loyalty count more than any other factor.
The issue of voter fraud was also a crucial factor in the disastrous 2014 electoral contest between Abdullah and Ghani. Abdullah, who is half Tajik and half Pashtun, won the first polling round but lost to Ghani in the second. That contest, however, was so discredited by fraud that it was deemed inconclusive, and the two men were forced to share power in a U.S.-brokered pact.
Despite the high-level opposition, officials are continuing with the enrollment process for cards as announced, though registration has been slow. One minor, somewhat quirky, reason is a boycott by a handful of tiny ethnic groups that object to the new cards because their groups are not listed among the choices.
“I hope this issue doesn’t become a major headache, but we will not compromise our identities as Sadat, as Bayat, as Qarlug, or as Khalili,” said Ishaq Gailani, a Pashtun politician from a prominent religious family and a member of the Sadat tribe.
Ghani, perhaps hoping to placate at least a few minority voters, has said it may be possible to add them to the list.
Constable reported from Islamabad.