The roll out of electronic national identity cards, also known as the e-tazkera has begun, heating up a contentious political debate, which had been simmering since 2013. That debate centres on whether the new ID should mention the holder’s ethnicity, and his or her nationality using the term ‘Afghan’ and in particular whether the words ‘Afghan’ and ‘Pashtun’ are synonymous or not. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Ali Yawar Adili (with input from Rohullah Sorush) have been looking at how the e-tazkera has inflamed debates about identity, as well as fanning crises between the leading Tajik political party, Jamiat-e Islami, and the presidential palace. A poster from the Afghanistan Central Registration Authorities’s facebook page, posted in December 2017, which promotes the e-tazkera for good governance. The roll-out of electronic cards in Afghanistan on 15 February 2018, steered a heated political debate. Credit: ACCRA Facebook page.
The roll-out of the e-tazkera on 15 February 2018 was symbolic, as President Ashraf Ghani, First Lady Rula Ghani and Vice President Muhammad Sarwar Danesh all applied for the new electronic national identity cards (see here). Voices of opposition and support for the e-tazkera distribution soon swamped the media in Afghanistan. Many expressed full-hearted support for the distribution of a new card which features ethnicity, and nationality using the word ‘Afghan’ (for supporters, from Kandahar see here and from Kabul-based civil society here). Some expressed their support in harsh nationalistic terms. Kandahar police chief General Razeq, for example, said “those who do not count themselves as Afghans should leave the country” (see here).
Equally harsh statements came from some opponents, for example, Atta Muhammad Nur, whom President Ghani dismissed as governor of Balkh province in December last year, although he remains in his post. He said that the distribution of cards mentioning nationality “will divide the country into two parts” and that it brought “the dangerous smell of deadly fights and disintegration.” Deputy Chief Executive and leader of one of the main Hazara political parties, Hezb-e Wahdat Islami Mardom-e Afghanistan, Muhammad Mohaqeq also expressed his disapproval, saying the government should not try to “impose” the identity of a particular ethnic group on other identities. He insisted the move would lead the country into crisis.
A more balanced, yet still oppositional stance, came from Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah who said that “a national consensus is required on the roll-out of the electronic national identity cards.”
The scale and apocalyptic nature of many of the reactions from Afghanistan’s political classes have been amplified in social media. For one Hazara reaction, for example, see this painting on a T-wall saying “I am not an Afghan!” while a Tajik Facebooker said “I do not want a false identity,” referring to the word ‘Afghan’. One Pashtun, apparently a colonel wrote that “whoever says I am not an Afghan, if they are Hazara, they should go to Mongolia, if they are Tajik, they should go to Tajikistan, if they are Uzbek, they should go to Uzbekistan and if they are a Turkman, they should go to Turkmenistan.” see here). Such statements, from both politicians and citizens, may seem overblown, but the issue of what is written on the e-tazkera has managed to lock into and bring into the open some deeply-held sentiments, resentments and fears among many citizens of Afghanistan about their national identity.
At the centre of the debate is the meaning of a word, ‘Afghan’. In the past in particular, but even today in some communities, ‘Afghan’ is used interchangeably with ‘Pashtun’, the largest of the 14 plus ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Both meanings are given in two leading English-language dictionaries, with the ethnic meaning given as the less common one. (1) It was Pashtun leaders who established Afghanistan as a country and its name then would have meant ‘land of the Pashtuns’. Particularly in the decades since World War II, however, ‘Afghan’ has increasingly come to be recognised as a label of citizenship and nationality. The 2004 Afghan constitution in article four states that “the word Afghan shall apply to every citizen of Afghanistan.” One of the issues then is whether including nationality and the term ‘Afghan’ on the ID card suggests that you have to be Pashtun to be a national, or if it is neutral of any ethnic bias.
The stage for the conflict over what goes on the e-tazkera was set by article six of Qanun-e Sabt-e Ahwal Nufus (Population Registration Act, sometimes also referred as the census law), which prescribes what data should be collected from citizens, and which of this data should be displayed on ID cards. The law itself became a source of tension, shown by as its complicated history of endorsements, rejections, amendments (more on which later).
Then, bringing the simmering conflict to the boil, came the president’s dismissal in December 2017 of Atta Muhammad Nur from his position as governor of Balkh, which he had held for 14 years. Atta is the head of the executive council (shura-ye ejra’iya) of the Jamiat-e Islami party, key part of one of the two main camps in 2014 election that later formed the National Unity Government. He is Tajik and Jamiat is mainly Tajik. President Ghani, of course, on the other side of the elections and the National Unity Government is Pashtun, as are most of his closest officials and advisors at the Palace or Arg (see here). After Atta’s dismissal, negotiations between Jamiat and the Palace were held over various issues including the e-tazkera roll-out. However, earlier this month after ten rounds of talks, negotiations stopped (more on this below). In the absence of any resolution of the wider Jamiat-Palace dispute, including the Atta-Ghani and e-tazkera sub-disputes, the president’s decision to roll out the e-tazkera, whatever information was on it, was only likely to magnify tensions.
The turbulent history of the e-tazkera
Distribution of the electronic national identity cards was initially supposed to start in March 2013 (see AAN analysis here and here). Although, the Population Registration Act, on which the whole project was to be based by then should have been approved, it was actually only sent to parliament in early 2013. The Wolesi Jirga debated the draft in early summer and reached an agreement on 19 June 2013 on all points except one – article six that stipulates what kind information should be collected from citizens and what should be written on the card.
The government had suggested that personal data should, similar to the old paper tazkeras, be limited to name, father’s name, grandfather’s name, place and date of birth, and residence (current and permanent). However, a heated debate among the MPs ensued, splitting the session between those wanting ethnicity to also be included (2), those demanding the inclusion of nationality, as a visibly displayed category, using the term ‘Afghan’ and those wanting neither. The split followed along ethnic lines: Uzbek MPs wanted only ethnicity to be added, Pashtun MPs wanted only nationality using the term ‘Afghan’ to be added and the majority of Tajik and Hazara MPs did not want either, although some MPs from both of these two ethnic groups were also in favour of only ethnicity being included. The law was passed as the government wished (without ethnicity or nationality). However, the voting itself was surrounded by many controversies both political and procedural, after a group of MPs walked out claiming they had broken the quorum and made any vote invalid (see this AAN analysis). The same heated debate was also heard in the Meshrano Jirga sessions in November 2013, but the law was also passed there. In late 2013, after of all this upheaval, former President Hamed Karzai chose not to sign the law.
On 9 November 2014, President Ghani did sign the Population Registration Act that had been passed by the parliament in 2013 which mentioned neither ethnicity or nationality. (An unofficial translation of the law can be found here, although it appears to be either incomplete or an older version, as under article six the reference to religion is missing.)
Throughout 2015, the government continued to give conflicting signals as to whether it would begin to issue ID cards, and the controversy over what should be included in the cards again resurfaced in August 2015. The chief executive’s office set 19 August 2015 as the date to launch the pilot project, but the president then delayed it. The Afghan political class and civil society has remained deeply divided, with some representatives of civil society of Tajik and Hazara origin pushing for a speedy start of the distribution, while those of Pashtun origin continued to demand amendments to the law. Some groups said they called off their protests after the president, according to them, assured them that the law would be amended to include ethnicity and the word ‘Afghan’ meaning a national of Afghanistan, while others continued to demonstrate.
In April 2016, the law committee of the cabinet chaired by Vice President Danesh proposed amendments to articles four and six of the census law. (2) Danesh explained that, “based on protests by different social groups, the amendment to article six of the population registration act has been prepared.” Danesh’s amendments appeared then to be a Solomonic solution. “This problem can be ended,” he said, “by adding [both] nationality and ethnicity in the text of the law and on the front page of the tazkera.”
In March 2017, President Ghani endorsed Danesh’s amendments to article four and six of the Population Registration Act, which also included the introduction of a new government agency, the Afghan Central Civil Registration Authority (ACCRA) in article four, and included both nationality and ethnicity in article six (see here) (3). He then issued decree 243 embodying these changes on 4 March 2017.
The decree was sent to the Wolesi Jirga on 18 April 2017 and was voted on 30 October 2017. It was rejected by a majority of the 127 MPs present (a quorum, as more than half of the 249 MPs were present). The Meshrano Jirga approved the amended version of the law on 19 November 2017 (see here and here).
When there is a difference of opinion between the two houses of parliament, it must be solved by a joint commission (according to article 100 of the constitution). A joint commission consisting of 16 members, eight MPs and eight senators, was therefore formed to decide the issue. It approved the amended law on 18 December 2017. However, four of the MPs had not been present at the time of the vote, Afghan media reported. One of those absent, Abdul Qayum Sajjadi from Ghazni province claimed he had not been informed of the final meeting of the joint committee.
The joint commission may have approved the amended law, albeit with a disputed vote, but the e-tazkera question did not go away. Indeed, it remained a constant topic in the Wolesi Jirga’s open discussion sessions until 20 January 2018 when parliament went into winter recess. Some MPs like Fakur Beheshti (a Sayed from Bamyan), Qazi Hanafi, a Tajik from Herat, and Hazara Ghulam Hussain Naseri (Maidan Wardak), said the decision made in the joint commission meeting was unlawful because only four out of eight MPs had attended the meeting. Others, including a group of Tajik MPs, Latif Pedram (Badakhshan), Ghulam Faruq Majruh (Herat), and Zahir Sadat (Panjshir), said the decision would have detrimental consequences because the inclusion of ethnicity on ID cards could cause partition along ethnic lines in the country. Other MPs like the Pashtuns Obaidullah Barakzai (Uruzgan) and Habib Afghan (Kuchi), who said that the joint commission’s decision had been in accordance to the law, asked the speaker to prevent MPs from further discussion, claiming it could have unhappy consequences for security and promote ethnic tensions.
In the last days of 2017, 56 MPs filed a motion to include this issue on the agenda for further discussion. This never happened and many Tajik MPs, including Fawzia Kofi (Badakhshan), Qazi Rahela Salim (Panjshir), Latif Pedram (Badakhshan), and Ghulam Faruq Majruh (Herat) criticized the speaker for what they said were continuous violations of the internal procedure. Other Pashtun MPs, like Shukria Isakhel (Baghlan), Saheb Khan (Logar), Kamal Nasir Osuli (Khost), Aryan Yun (Nangrahar), and Razia Sadat Mangal (Paktia) continued to be in favour of the amended law and called on the government to initiate the distribution of electronic ID cards as soon as possible. They also called on their fellow MPs not to “misinterpret the constitution” on this issue (a reference to article four of the constitution which says that “the word Afghan shall apply to every citizen of Afghanistan”). Reuters quoted a Pashtun member of parliament, Saheb Khan, who apparently said to the assembly that he would fight to the death anyone who did not accept the word ‘Afghan’ on his ID card (see here). When the Wolesi Jirga went into winter recess, the e-tazkera issue had not, by no means, been resolved.
Nevertheless, the government chose to roll out the distribution anyway. On 15 February 2018, as well as the president and his wife and his second deputy, more than 200 families applied for the new ID. Some members of the cabinet also decided to apply for their e-tazkeras.
The spokesman for the body in charge of issuing the cards, the Afghanistan Central Civil Registration Authority, Rohullah Ahmadzai, told AAN on 17 February 2018, that each person’s name, takhalus, (4) father’s name, grandfather’s name, date and place of birth, current residence, permanent address, religion, ethnicity and nationality were all printed on the new ID cards.
An attempt to map out the different positions on e-tazkera
The disagreement over the e-tazkera has caused ethnic polarisation, but in somewhat surprising ways. Tajiks and the Hazaras – at least their MPs – appear to have aligned with each other on the issue, with both groups demanding tazkeras as per the 2014 law, mentioning neither ethnicity or nationality. This was evident from the press conference held on 21 January 2018 by 115 Tajik and Hazara MPs, in which they called for implementation of 2014 Population Registration Act. They all signed a letter to the president, demanding that he annuls amended law, which was passed in a disputed vote by the joint commission of parliament in December 2017. (See the video from the event here).
A Hazara MP from Ghazni province, who did not want to be named, told AAN that the discussion was not whether “we oppose or agree with nationality or ethnicity [appearing on the ID].” The question, he said, on 17 February 2018, “was rather whether we accept the 2014 law or the new decree. The majority of Shia, Hazara MPs wanted the 2014 law, but there were two, three MPs who signed off on the opposite view [to accept the new decree].”
The majority of Uzbeks, however, are happy with the amended Population Registration Act. This aligns them with most Pashtun MPs, who are seen as the driving force behind the amendments. For instance, Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj, an Uzbek MP from Faryab and spokesman for the Jombesh-e Melli Party led by Vice-President Dostum, told AAN on 17 February 2018:
Initially, we wanted ethnicities which are named in the constitution – something which we consider an achievement – to be recorded on the electronic tazkeras. […] It was not a formal deal with Pashtuns, but they accepted the demand for including ethnic identities and we also agreed to the ethnicity and nationality to be recorded on the tazkeras.
He said the majority of Uzbek MPs agreed with him, adding that he was not there when “the Tajik and Hazara MPs called for the implementation of the 2014 law, but they had invited other Uzbek MPs who did not participate.” A non-Uzbek MP also told AAN that Uzbek MPs were against the 2014 law, because they wanted the inclusion of ethnicity on the card, regardless of whether nationality was or was not mentioned.
More on the e-tazkera and the Jamiat-Palace rift
The e-tazkera dispute did not help resolving the conflict between Jamiat and the Palace over the president’s contested dismissal of Governor Atta in December 2017 any easier, but was added to the list of problems needing a solution. (4) Atta’s party entered into negotiations with a delegation representing the Palace in late December which included National Security Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar, the head of Afghan intelligence, the National Directorate of Security Masum Stanekzai, Minister of Finance Eklil Hakimi and Salam Rahimi, head of the administrative office of the president. The negotiations ranged over Atta’s resignation, changes in the electoral law, and the roll-out of the e-tazkera. (5)
A member of Jamiat’s leadership council, who asked not to be named, told AAN, on 19 February 2018, that the two sides had, by that time, had the ten rounds of negotiation, but the talks had been halted “around ten days ago.” During the negotiation, Afghan media reported, Jamiat had presented 12 demands which, according to the Jamiat official, included the distribution of e-tazkera based on the Population Registration Act endorsed by the president Ghani in 2014 (ie featuring neither ethnicity or nationality). The Palace, however, the official said, insisted on implementing the 2017 amended law (featuring both).
Before the negotiations stopped, the Jamiat official said, the two sides had agreed to continue to discuss the e-tazkera issue, and to put in writing that Jamiat had demanded the implementation of the 2014 law, while the Palace wanted to implement the 2017 amended law. There was also an agreement, he said, to delay the distribution of e-tazkera, adding that the party was now calling for a stop to it until a consensus among all ethnic groups had been reached. The same Jamiat council member also said that, since both the 2014 law and the 2017 amended law had opponents, in Jamiat’s view, there was a need to seek a middle way, once the distribution of e-tazkera had been halted.
On 20 February 2018, the acting spokesman for the president, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, speaking to AAN, neither confirmed or denied Jamiat’s version of events, but insisted that “Jamiat did not negotiate with the Arg and the president.” He also said AAN should ask those who had been negotiating, (presumably Atmar, Stanekzai, Hakimi and Rahimi) what had been decided. It looked like a feeble attempt to distance the president from the negotiations. “The biometric process of e-tazkera has officially started,” he said, telling AAN to ask the Afghan Central Civil Registration Authority “which law they are applying.” This statement could be read as a dismissal of Jamiat and their demands. Whatever the truth of the matter, and whatever was said or not said during the negotiations, Jamiat officials are feeling aggrieved.
Other political voices
There has been a broader opposition to distributing the e-tazkera with ethnicity and nationality on it within Jamiat and Chief Executive Abdullah’s constituency. For instance, on 30 December 2017, Jabha-ye Defa az Huyat (the Front for the Defense of Identity) declared its existence ) see this video here and read the statement here. It includes the National Congress Party led by Abdul Latif Pedram, Jombesh-e Guzar (the Transition Movement), a Tajik nationalist group which announced its existence on 11 May 2017 and Rastakhez-e Taghir or Uprising for Change, a largely Tajik movement that emerged out of protests in the wake of 31 May 2017 bomb attack near Zambaq square (see AAN’s analysis on Uprising for Change here and here). The Front’s statement said: “’Afghan’ is one of the names of the respected Pashto-speaking ethnic group of the country and generalizing it to other ethnic groups means distorting the identity of others.” They called the amendments to article six “a coup against the national will,” and demanded that the National Unity Government distribute electronic tazkeras in accordance with the 2014 census law, ie not mentioning either ethnicity or nationality.
Other alliances have fallen apart because of the issue: ethnic Pashtun Kandahar police chief and strongman General Razeq had supported Atta Nur in resisting his dismissal by Ghani, but has vociferously demanded the inclusion of ‘Afghan’ as nationality on the e-tazkera and said that those who do not accept this do not belong in the land.
Others have said the real issue at stake is concerns about what the statistical facts that the e-tazkera, with its ethnically contentious information, will reveal. Amrullah Saleh, former director of the NDS in Karzai’s government, and short-lived State Minister for Security Reform in Ghani’s government, previously a Jamiat stalwart, until, circa 2013, when he formed the Afghan Green Trend movement – and a Tajik – has written that the real issue is not about national identity or ethnic identity, but that people are afraid of having a census, which would disclose the numerical strengths of certain ethnic groups.
A danger of fanning ethnicisation
Whatever is written on the e-tazkera, the idea behind having a new national identity card is a good one. Afghanistan currently has six versions of paper tazkeras in circulation. A modern, uniform and unique identity card for Afghan citizens would be practical and potentially useful – for getting government and other services, voting in elections and enhancing security. In most countries, IDs are not the place where debates about national identity and ethnicity are played out. Usually, they just confirm one’s identity (and citizenship). Indeed, in many countries with complex ethnic compositions or where ethnicity is contentious, written information about this is purposely avoided in order to maintain calm.
As has been seen throughout the decades in Afghanistan, in both peace and some phases of the war, ethnicity has been used to form political parties and military factions, to organise people and vote in elections, to rally support and identify ‘the enemy’. It is always a potentially dangerous issue as it is essentially a sort of primordial kinship that gains its social and political powers from its fixed and predetermined feature – ie, being born into a certain ethnic group. In that light, the Afghan government’s 2014 Population Registration Act could be seen as an attempt to avoid the loaded issues of ethnicity, and what to call the nation’s nationality. The 2017 amendments to the law appear to have been an attempt to please all sides and resolve the dispute, but unfortunately, ended up opening a Pandora’s box of some very contentious issues.
Edited by Kate Clark
(1) Some Pashtun ethno-nationalists, however, continue to use ‘Afghan’ to mean ‘Pashtun.’ It is also used in colloquial language among some ethnic minorities (for example, rural Hazaras often refer to Pashtuns as ‘Awghan’ or ‘Awghu). The Oxford English and Marian Webster dictionaries give both meanings, that is, an inhabitant of Afghanistan and (the less common meaning) another term for Pashtun.
(2) The Afghanistan Constitution mentions the following ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pashai, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwi “and other tribes.”
(3) See the text in brackets in bold for the 2017 amendments to article four and six (AAN translation):
- The Ministry of Interior Affairs (Afghanistan Central Civil Registration Authority) is the implementing authority for the registration of population records in the country and shall be responsible for the implementation of the provisions of this law.
- For the realization of the objectives set forth in this law, the office of registering population records and the evaluation of foreigners’ identity is within the Ministry of Interior Affairs in the centre, provinces, districts, border ports and airports.
For the realization of the objectives set forth in this law, the Afghanistan Central Civil Registration Authority shall operate with an independent state structure and budget in accordance with provisions of this law.)
- The national identity card shall contain the following information:
1- The Afghanistan national logo located in the center of national identity card and the number of national identity card written underneath it. On the right side, this text below shall be written in Pashto with Dari on the left: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – Ministry of Interior Affairs (Afghanistan Central Civil Registration Authority) National identity card).
2- On the right side of the National identity card the following shall be written in the official languages of the country:
-Date of birth
3- On the left side of the National Identity Card, the following shall be written in the official languages of the country:
-Place of birth
4-At the bottom of the National Identity Card, the following shall be written in order:
Religion Ethnicity Nationality
5- On the left side of the National identity card photograph of the citizen shall be pasted.
6- At the back of the National identity card, in the middle, the following texts shall be written in English:
Islamic Republic of Afghanistan/National Identity Card
Underneath this, the following words are written:
Full Name (Name and takhalus):
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Date of Issue:
On the right and in the official languages of the country and in English, the Signature and Date of Issue shall be written.
The left side of the national identity card shall hold electronic information that contains confidential and other personal information about the country’s citizen, stated in the [application] form in the annex 2 of this law and which shall be read by electronic machines.
(4) The takhalus is the last part of the name: it could be the tribe, the father or grandfather’s name or something else chosen by the individual.
(5) The president’s removal of Nur also caused a disturbance between Jamiat and the chief executive Abdullah. Nur implicated Abdullah in his removal and named him a ‘snake in the grass’ (in Dari, “a snake up everyone’s sleeve.” Nur also said that Abdullah was trying to divide the party, after having got power through Jamiat. Abdullah, apparently, during a council of ministers’ meeting, had questioned the timing of Atta’s removal, and has publically rejected being involved in Atta’s dismissal.
On the e-tazkera issue, both Jamiat and the chief executive appeared to be united on delaying rolling out the e-tazkera. Abdullah, on 16 February 2018, issued a statement saying that he believed that distribution of electronic tazkeras as one of the big national issues which requires more discussion and a national consensus. He also said earlier on 8 January 2018, that the delay in distribution e-tazkira at the current stage was important “to maintain the unity of the people of Afghanistan”.
A source close to Abdullah told AAN on 14 February 2018, that Abdullah had not been happy with the amendments of the Population Registration Act from the very beginning, “but he stayed silent, to avoid making it an ethnic issue.” He also voiced this stance at the time of heated debates in the Wolesi Jirga before winter recess.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020