Afghanistan’s ethnic question obstructs its digital future


There is growing frustration in Afghanistan that the new government has missed repeated deadlines to introduce new biometric identity cards.

The introduction of a new national ID card was first discussed in 2010 following a presidential election in 2009 marred by corruption and violence.

The launch of a biometric ID card was seen as a crucial step towards electoral transparency, as it would contain the information of each registered voter.

But a split over the sensitive question of ethnicity has stalled the card’s launch.

On one hand are those who feel that only ‘Afghan’ should feature under the card’s nationality field, while others are demanding that one’s specific ethnicity is listed.

There’s also an increasingly vocal group who feel that all references to nationality or ethnicity should be omitted entirely, with only the country’s official name, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, made visible.

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic society with a population of 31 million, but many members of the majority Pashtun group (approximately 42 per cent of the population) consider themselves to be the true heirs of the ‘Afghan’ title.

As a result, they want smaller ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Balochs to be identified by their own ethnic group.

Afghanistan’s history has been marred by a series of bloody conflicts amongst various ethnic and tribal groups, and this continues in many areas of society today.

Indeed, many ethnic minorities in Afghanistan considered the Taliban to be a Pashtun militia rather than a radical group driving fundamentalist ideas in the name of Islam.

Similarly, a new generation of metropolitan Pashtuns feels under pressure from both sides: on one hand, anti-Taliban forces identify all Pashtuns as extremists, and on the other, the Taliban targets urban Pashtuns for their proximity and also for their liberalism.

All of these factors have contributed towards complicating the ethnic identity issue with regards to the national ID cards but those in charge of obtaining voter information say this is much less of a problem in urban areas than it is in rural Afghanistan.

“We have come across the question of ethnicity in various parts of Kabul,” said Najibullah, a volunteer filling out ID card data forms in the Ahmad Shah Baba area of Kabul. “But we told everyone that it is not our domain and people seem to understand that.”


A viable solution?

It seems the government’s solution to the ethnic ID question will be to log each person’s ethnicity on the card’s smart chip but not make this information visible on the card. Any declarations of nationality, it seems, will also be omitted.

Humayoun Mohtat, Director of the Biometric Identity Cards Issuing Authority, told Equal Times that while there is still no launch date for the new ID cards, Afghans should be reassured that the cards have been made in accordance with international standards.

“The parliament will endorse international standards by not marking the nationality on the face of the card but rather, by noting it in the logging data,” he said.

But for those demanding for nationality and/or ethnicity to appear on the new cards, this is unacceptable.

Many of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtuns feel they despite being the country’s majority group, they are being purposely sidelined in decision-making processes at a national level. Meanwhile ethnic minorities argue that use of the term “Afghan” (which is historically synonymous with the Pashtuns), allows for the country’s dominant tribe to obscure and exaggerate their true number for political gain.

Kamal Saadat, a political activist of Pashtun origin representing a coalition of pro-nationality community and political groups, told a crowded press conference in Kabul at the beginning of January that these cards were unacceptable.

“We would like to meet the President and parliament, and if they fail to meet our demands we would launch nationwide protests,” he said, warning that the nationality question was a matter of ‘life and death’.

On behalf of all protesting organisations, he warned that if the government failed to incorporate the “Afghan” section on the identity and census documents, they would strive for the impeachment of the President Ashraf Ghani.

The President himself has avoided commenting directly on the issue but the news this week that he has finally announced his new cabinet (more than three months after coming to power) means that movement on the ID card issue is imminent.

For human rights analyst Nizamuddin Katawazi, however, the people of Afghanistan should avoid fighting over something which, ultimately, is designed to improve their lives.

“These biometric cards will bring many benefits to the nation. For example, the future election process could be made more transparent and delivering civic services would become easier,” he told Equal Times, saying that critics should focus on that.

But as the war-torn country enters a new tough era of self-reliance following the end of NATO’s combat mission on 28 December, uniting the nation under one identity remains one of the toughest battles ahead.