A new Afghan biometric ID card, which is supposed to prevent voter fraud, has not been issued because of fights over whether to put ethnic information on the document. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

It is one of the few things everyone in Afghanistan can agree on — the need for a new, electronically readable, biometrically secure ID card that will help build a sense of national identity and prevent the kind of massive voter fraud that has marred the past two presidential elections.

The new card was promised by President Ashraf Ghani soon after he took office nearly two years ago and approved by parliament last year. It was designed by experts and financed by international donors. More than 9 million cards have been produced so far, and the cost of providing them to more than 20 million adults is expected to be well over $100 million. 

Yet to date, not a single card has been issued to the public. Instead, the e-Tazkiras as they are called here, have become the latest casualty in an ongoing war of ethnic sensitivities that caused previous brouhahas, over the images on the Afghan currency and the language of the national anthem. 

The e-Tazkiras were supposed to be an important early step in electoral reforms that would lead to local and parliamentary elections by this fall. But those have been repeatedly delayed, weakening the legitimacy of the struggling national unity government. Ghani and his top electoral rival, Abdullah Abdullah, were pressured by U.S. officials into a power-sharing deal after the chaotic 2014 election.

The rollout of the ID cards was halted because of vocal opposition from various ethnic leaders, who objected to having ethnic background mentioned as part of each citizen’s official identity. Some minority groups feared it would make them vulnerable to harassment, while some from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group worried it would reveal that their percentage of the population is less than they have always insisted. 

“We have millions of ghost voters with fake cards that have been printed in Pakistan. This is a problem we urgently need to solve to hold future elections, but for some groups, the larger issue is one of social insecurity,” said Javid Faisal, an aide to Abdullah, the country’s chief executive. Abdullah recently proposed a compromise in which citizens would be issued two ID cards — one for voting with no ethnic information, and a second for other uses with a full list of personal information. 

But even that apparently has not satisfied some minority critics, who also objected to printing every card-holder’s nationality as “Afghan” on the new biometric cards, complaining that “Afghan” historically has been used interchangeably with Pashtun. Several officials have suggested the cumbersome “Afghanistani” as a substitute; the simpler “Afghani” is already in use as the name of the national currency. 

Beneath the veneer of an emerging modern democracy, in which the United Nations and Western donors have invested enormous resources since the overthrow of Taliban religious rule in 2001, Afghanistan is still a fractured tribal society whose inhabitants identify themselves first as ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras or Uzbeks, as well as a small Turkmen group. 

Ancient ethnic lines hardened during the civil war of the early 1990s, when anti-Soviet militias from different groups turned against each other and nearly destroyed Kabul in the process. Since then, national leaders have bought off ethnic bosses by parceling out ministries, governorships and other lucrative posts, although that system is now under pressure from President Ghani’s drive to depoliticize the government and build a professional meritocracy.

Today, there are no guns being drawn in the name of Pashtun or Tajik supremacy, but their old lions still roar when they don’t get enough respect. Even the president, a Pashtun, has gotten grief from his fellow tribesmen on the e-card issue, although it is the former Tajik militia commanders from the north who have roared the loudest about prejudicial wording, calling for protests and walkouts. 

“The e-card was such a simple thing, and now it has become a huge political issue,” complained Shinkai Karokhel, a member of parliament from Kabul. “Everyone who lives in Afghanistan should be considered an Afghan,” she said. “These politicians just want to satisfy their groups; they won’t take advantage of an historic opportunity and tell people to shut up and do the right thing.”

On the streets of the capital this week, an assortment of shopkeepers, professionals and tradesmen agreed uniformly that the new foolproof ID card would be a very good thing for the country, especially to prevent Afghanistan’s neighbors from interfering in elections and to restore trust and accountability to an electoral system that lost both after the fraud-plagued 2014 presidential contest. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, however, they were divided on the question of whether to put ethnicity on the new ID cards. Some thought the issue was a tempest in a teapot being stirred up by ethnic leaders to prove their clout; others thought it would help establish the true balance of ethnic power in a country where no national census has ever been conducted and every ethnic boss claims to be king of the largest constituency.

“These self-proclaimed leaders act so foolishly, proclaiming that the Pashtuns or the Hazaras are the majority,” said Sherzai Seerat, 25, who manages a small market in West Kabul. “The electronic tazkiras will be a vital tool for solving crimes, finding jobs, getting passports. A year ago, people from the government were knocking on doors and telling us about them,” he added with a bewildered shrug, “but then nothing happened.” 

Ahmad Zaki, 32, an unemployed plumber, said the dispute over the new tazkiras is one in a long list of things that has made him “100 per cent disappointed” in the current government. “I think they should put down people’s ethnicity, because it is important to know who is who,” he said. “But we have much bigger problems: security, prices and jobs. I go to my plumbing shop every day, but there is no work at all now. The new president promised to change so many things, but there has been no action.”