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Afghanistan's Identity-Card Controversy

The Afghan government is seeking to issue biometric cards to citizens to help curtail election fraud and promote national unity. But the issue of whether to include citizens' ethnicity has instead highlighted Afghanistan's historical ethnic divisions.

Afghanistan's long-standing effort to distribute electronic ID cards to citizens has been marred by dispute, leading to violent street protests, walkouts in parliament, and scuffles among politicians.

In a bid to break the deadlock -- which largely centers on the issue of whether ethnicity should be printed on the documents -- a new proposal has been made to distribute not one, but two separate IDs. One would be a biometric card that would not document holders' nationality or ethnicity, and an accompanying booklet that would specify ethnicity and religion.

But the proposal, made on August 3 by Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah -- who shares power with President Ashraf Ghani -- has been met with anger by some citizens. Afghans are venting their frustration by ridiculing the two-headed national-unity government (NUG), which came about after the 2014 presidential election failed to determine a lone winner.

Javid Faisal, spokesman to the chief executive, defended the proposal in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "The president and other stakeholders have all agreed to this proposal," he said. "The proposal will assuage the concerns of the Afghan people."

The controversial proposal must to be approved by both houses of parliament before the new cards can be rolled out.

Ethnic Identities

The Afghan government is seeking to issue biometric cards to citizens to help curtail election fraud and promote national unity. But the issue of whether to include citizens' ethnicity has instead highlighted Afghanistan's historical ethnic divisions, largely because critics believe putting everyone under the "Afghan" umbrella is politically advantageous to the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Ethnic rifts run deep in Afghanistan, and ethnicity is closely tied to citizens' broader sense of political and social identity.

Some argue that, with precise population estimates unavailable because Afghanistan has never conducted a nationwide census, documenting citizens' ethnicity on the national ID card could help the government accurately determine the size of the country's various ethnic groups.

This is contentious because ethnic minorities in Afghanistan claim that population estimates used to determine political representation greatly overstate the percentage of Pashtuns, which arguably results in the group taking a greater share of power than it deserves.

Advocates of the effort to forge a common Afghan identity, however, say singling out citizens' ethnicity could be divisive. Excluding mention of ethnicity on the ID cards, they argue, could promote unity in the volatile multiethnic country.

Under the proposed format of the new biometric documents, known as "taskera," holders' nationalities would be omitted. In addition to the words "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" identifying the card as an official state document, the card would only include name, province, and address.

The accompanying booklet would include Afghan nationality and specify holders' ethnicity and religion.

This is not acceptable to citizens such as Abdul Wahid. "I will not get the new ID card that has been proposed," he told RFE/RL. "We are all Afghans. We're all from this land and we will all die in this land."

"If we are Afghans and our ID cards don't have the word 'Afghan,' what does this mean?" asks Obaid, a Kabul resident who goes by one name. "We are Afghans so our ID cards should say we are from the Afghan nation."

In the absence of a national census, the government has relied on figures compiled from sample censuses dating back to the 1970s to determine the country's ethnic makeup. The fact that Afghan governments have been dominated by Pashtuns has helped fuel sentiments among ethnic minorities that they are being politically marginalized, and even that the Pashtuns have a stake in preventing a national census from being conducted.

Even the word "Afghan" itself, which historically is synonymous with Pashtuns, is a source of contention among members of minority groups.

Ramin Habibi, another Kabul resident, said the new proposal was a "good step toward transparency" and "a fair compromise."

But Zaki Wardaki said the country needed to stop thinking along ethnic lines. "I don't care if my ethnicity is on the card or not," the Kabul resident said. "For heaven's sake, let's leave these rubbish ideas behind."

The proposed national ID card project is expected to cost $100 million, and will be paid for by the Finance Ministry. The introduction of new ID cards was a key promise made by the government after the presidential election in 2014, which was marred by widespread fraud and voting irregularities.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.