E-tazkera: relieving pre-election tension or adding to the confusion?
One of the ideas to prevent fraud and ensure fairness in future elections is the accelerated introduction of electronic identity cards to Afghanistan. According to the Ministry of Interior it will take at least a decade until all Afghans have the planned new identity cards, but proponents of the e-tazkera believe the project can still be rolled out ahead of the 2014 elections. Foremost among its backers is the Afghan Cabinet that rejected the proposal by the Independent Election Commission to launch a new voter registration process. However, many questions remain over the practicalities, most prominently whether the Afghan government will be able to allocate, or convince donors, to provide the necessary 120 million USD and whether the Ministry of Interior can carry out such a large and complex project in time for the 2014 election. AAN political researcher Obaid Ali reports.
Afghanistanâ€™s first ever tazkera, a stylish handwritten document with beautiful calligraphy, was issued almost a century ago during the reign of the reformer-king Amanullah Khan (1919-1929).(1) Now, with the Cabinetâ€™s decision on 17 September 2012 to back the e-tazkera, the government has signalled its desire to replace the mundane paper ID with a technologically cutting-edge, smart ID card of a type found in few countries in the world.
The Cabinetâ€™s decision, for the moment, seems to have drawn a line under the discussion (pending the parliamentâ€™s vote on the new electoral law) about what method of voter documentation will be used at the next presidential election in 2014. By favouring the country-wide distribution of the e-tazkera, the Cabinet rejected the Independent Election Commissionâ€™s (IEC) arguments that, in the words of its chairman, Fazl Ahmad Manawi, “we cannot wait for the e-tazkera” and that without a fresh voter registration a fair and transparent presidential elections in 2014 could not be guaranteed. Manawi had intended voter that registration to start in April 2013.(2)
However, at the same time, the Cabinet has also accepted that â€“ according to the Ministry of Interior (MoI), which is the ministry leading the project â€“ a full distribution of the new ID cards is too tough a task to be fully completed ahead of the elections. The MoI estimates that only 70 per cent of the distribution will be completed within the next three years. For the remaining 30 per cent of the population, who mainly live in insecure and far-flung areas, it might take another three to six years. This means that, even in the most successful scenario, a considerable part of the population will still have to cast their votes in 2014 using the old and controversial voter cards, the number of which has kept inflating over the past two election cycles (2004/05 and 2009/10) and of which there are now an estimated 5 to 7 million more cards in circulation than there are eligible voters.(3)
The governmentâ€™s main argument in favour of the e-tazkera in the context of the elections seems to be the lack of exact statistical data about Afghanistanâ€™s population. The countryâ€™s population has never been fully counted,(4) despite the fact that holding a census, not in the least as a contribution to holding fair and inclusive elections, was mandated in the 2001 Bonn agreement. On 28 November 2012, when the Lower House of Parliament summoned officials from the Ministries of Interior (MoI) and Communications and Information Technology (MoCIT) and the director of the Central Statistic Department (CSO) to answer MPsâ€™ questions on issuing the e-tazkera, the Interior Minister, Mujtaba Patang, said the lack of a census was â€˜the major challengeâ€™ of the e-tazkera project. He further told lawmakers that the distribution of the e-tazkera would begin in Dalw (January/February 2013) and would be extended to all Afghan citizens, including militants.
In the same session of Parliament, the Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Amirzai Sangin, concentrated on the technical aspects in an attempt to convince lawmakers of the benefits of the project. He assured them of the high quality of the e-tazkera which, he said, would guarantee that it could not be forged. Mr Sangin further said that, as well as functioning as a voter card, it could also be used, where appropriate, as a vehicle registration paper and driving license. Deputy Minister of Interior Affairs, Mirza Muhammad Yarmand, said the distribution of cards would take place in six phases, region by region. He estimated that, for the total population â€“ estimated at about 30 million â€“ it would take 26 months to finalise the distribution of the e-tazkera and that the project would cost the equivalent of 120.9 million USD. According to the MoI presentation, the original data would be kept at the ministry, while two backups would be stored in secure places, one copy in a secure centre inside Afghanistan and the second copy in one of Afghanistanâ€™s embassies abroad.
What the government did not mention in the Wolesi Jirga session is that, according to its original plan, the e-tazkera project should have already been in full progress and indeed, if it had started on time according to the original plan, theoretically the project could have been finalized by the 2014 election date (5 April 2014) â€“ assuming of course that the plan was realistic to start with.
The contract for the original project for what was then called the National Electronic ID Card (e-NID), was won in December 2010 by the private company, Grand Technology Resources (GTR). GTR was contracted to implement the project in a record period of three years.(6) As soon as the contract was signed, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, then the lead Afghan ministry, told reporters that distribution would start within eight months, ie by September 2011. At the time, minister Amirzai Sangin explained that his ministry would cover the technical part of the project, while the practical steps would be turned over to the MoI. In March 2012, when the project should already have been running for over half a year, the Communications Ministry told reporters, in another press conference, that the distribution of the e-tazkera would start within six months, ie by October 2012, and that it planned to hand over the first ever e-tazkera to President Hamid Karzai â€“ however without giving a date.
Two years have passed since the first announcement that distribution was to start soon. When AAN asked the General Director of the e-tazkera project at the MoI, Engineer Massum Farhad, about the governmentâ€™s commitment in 2010 to start distributing the e-tazkera within eight months, he played the ball back to the Communication Ministry, hinting that it had misunderstood the contract. According to him, GTR had only been contracted to supply, train, install and maintain the software applications and equipment required for the establishment of the e-tazkera, but not to actually distribute the cards.(5) The failure so far to move on the 2010 e-tazkera plan does not inspire confidence in the current lofty ambitions for rolling out much of it in time for the next elections.
When, in October 2012, the head of the IEC announced the date for the 2014 presidential election and pointed out that the IEC could not say if the e-tazkera could be used in this electoral cycle or not, the Deputy Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Abdurrahman Rahman, again vowed to distribute e-tazkera to six million Afghans by the time of the presidential election. He repeated that the distribution operation would start in Dalw (January/February 2013). But it is far from clear where the money for this programme should come from. So far the donors have been hesitant to commit, given the contrasting claims and views on the timeline and feasibility of the the e-tazkera project. Moreover, even if â€“ in the best case scenario â€“ the MoI manages to distribute six million new IDs before the 2014 election, this would technically mean a merging of identity data collection and vote casting and counting. Moreover, the use of the new ID cards as voter cards simultaneously with the old voter cards threatens to muddy and complicate the vote, rather than ensure that it goes more smoothly.
Apart from that, no one has so far convincingly explained why such a high-tech solution like the e-tazkera has been chosen in a low-tech country like Afghanistan. It is not clear whether the interior minister will be able to carry out such a large and complex project in such as short time before the election, particularly given the fact that even technologically advanced countries have struggled with the introduction of electronic IDs. The lack of appropriate and clear funding, the lack of security and the limited experience in carrying out such technologically exact projects might lead to a state of affairs where voting is hindered and damaged, rather than facilitated. Here is seems appropriate to heed the warning in a Dari saying acording to which “you cannot hold two watermelons in one hand.”
(1) The first stylish tazkera was developed into a multi-page Pashto document during the Zaher Shah era. During the communist regimes (1978-1992) the logo of the PDPA was added on the first page and during the mujahedin government of 1992-1996, led by Burhanuddin Rabani, it was changed again, reverting back to a simple one page document, like the one that is currently in use.
(2) Fazel Ahmad Manawi presented the IEC proposal for a new voter registration process to the Cabinet on 3 September 2012. The Cabinet appointed a committee to assess both the voter registration and the e-tazkera projects and charged it with reporting back by 17 September 2012. The committee was led by National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta and included representatives from the Ministries of Interior (MoI), Telecommunication and Information Technology (MoCIT), and Finance (MoF), the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) and the Central Statistics Office (CSO).
(3) The IEC has serious concerns that using the old voter cards may again facilitate widepsread fraud and manipulation in the upcoming election. In 2004 the number of distributed voter cards (10.5 million) already exceeded the estimated total number of voters (estimated at the time at 9.8 million). By 2010 a total of 17.5 million voter cards had been distributed. By then it was widely accepted that an excess of five to seven million voter cards were not linked to actual voters (see also AANâ€™s report â€˜Untangling Afghanistanâ€™s 2010 Voteâ€™).
(4) There was an official census just before the Soviet intervention. It was carried out in 1979 under Hafizullah Amin during a three week period (June 15 to July 4). The census did not cover the whole country due to armed conflict. It reported a settled population of 13 million and an estimated 2.5 million nomads, giving a total population of 15.5 million. Despite its shortcomings, it is still used as the basis for most population figures.
(5) Engineer Farhad added that each e-tazkera would cost the equivalent of 4 USD (about 200 Afghanis). The cost would be free to each citizen, although he or she would have to pay for replacement if the card was lost.
(6) According to the GTR website, the project will be run in a joint venture with its partners IRIS, Hyundai-IT, Dangdo and ENTRUST. IRIS will provide poly-carbonated cards with security features and its integration into the overall system; the famous Korean company Hyundai-IT will bring its system development methodology and will also develop system security; Dangdo, another Korean company, will provide system integrations and application development; Hyundai-IT and ENTRUST will provide â€˜public key infrastructureâ€™, while GTR has the lead over the overall project.
The Deputy Minister for Technical Affairs at the MoCIT, Engineer Baryali Hassam, told AAN that the 102 million USD project for the provision of the e-tazkera infrastructure by GTR had been signed and that the funding would be provided through the development budget of the Communication Ministry. He said USD 14 million had been paid to GTR as an advance and that the rest of the payment was pending and would be paid accordance to the contract.