There is a fairly broad consensus among Afghans and donors alike that the introduction of an electronic ID card – or e-tazkera – would be a good thing; it would provide accurate population data, standardised ID documents and the possibility of, in the case of elections, drawing up reliable voter lists. The project, however, has been stymied by political controversies and fundamental technical questions. In this first part of a two-part dispatch, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica take a look at the most pressing controversies that threaten to indefinitely paralyse the project.Protest in eastern Nangarhar province in September 2015 for inclusion of nationality/ citizenship ("Afghan") and religion in new electronic national identity cards. (Pajhwok/Zeerak Fahim)
Discussions over the introduction of a standardised and computerised ID card in Afghanistan have been around for years, but the project was only started in earnest in February 2009. In December 2010, a contract was signed with a private company, Grand Technology Resources. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoCIT), the lead ministry at the time, told reporters that distribution of the cards would start by September 2011, even though the Afghan cabinet had not yet decided on their design. The project was, however, plagued by delays due to capacity constraints and concerns over data security. (1) Only in late 2012, as planning for the 2014 elections commenced, did the project regain a sense of urgency.
The introduction of a standardised ID document that can also function as a voter card or at least help establish reliable voter lists, has long been seen as a prerequisite to reducing the fraud that had plagued Afghanistan’s elections. As a result, in the course of 2013, discussions on the e-tazkera were ‘hijacked’ by the wish to suddenly accelerate the project and rush the distribution of the cards in the run-up to the presidential elections – even though the system had barely been tested and clearly a complete rollout in such a short time would be impossible. (2)
Trying to rush the e-tazkera in the face of an election
The government thus announced that the registration of population data was scheduled to begin in early 2013. A decree by President Hamed Karzai, dated 23 January 2013 (PD 6677), instructed relevant ministries to expedite the process and start distribution of the cards by 21 March 2013. By then, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) had already embarked on a staff-recruitment drive while the MoCIT was ordered to start shipping the necessary equipment to the provinces, particularly to locations that had no or only limited access to the internet. The pretence was kept up for quite a while. On 24 February 2013, then Deputy Minister of Interior Muhammad Mirza Yarmand told a press conference that up to 14 million Afghans would receive an e-tazkera within a year. The Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions, an informal political pressure group for electoral reform similarly argued that with 600 registration centres, it should be possible to register at least 1.5 million people per month, if each centre registered at least 100 people per day. This wish to rush the e-tazkera distribution signalled a shared recognition of the need to tackle electoral fraud. But it was also unrealistic, as it did not allow time for preparation, testing and the correction of glitches or take into account that several fundamental issues had not yet been settled (including the design of the card and what data was to be included).
The practicalities of the distribution, however, were soon eclipsed by the politics of which data to register and what to display on the card, as the parliament started discussions on the Population Registration Act.
Tripped up by politics: The fight over which personal data to include
In March 2013, when the distribution of the cards should have already started, the draft Population Registration Act, on which the whole project would be based, was sent to the parliament. The Wolesi Jirga debated the draft in early summer and on 19 June 2013 reached an agreement on all points except one: article 6 that stipulates what should be written on the card. The government had suggested that personal data should be limited to: name, father’s name, grandfather’s name, place and date of birth, and residence (current and permanent). A heated debate ensued, splitting the session into those arguing for the inclusion of ethnicity and those demanding the use of the general term “Afghan” for nationality. Several MPs argued that without these additions – ethnicity and/or nationality – article 6 would be unconstitutional and suggested that the text be sent to the Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC) for an opinion, before embarking on further discussion.
On 15 July 2013, the issue was revisited in parliament (without ICSIC opinion). The debate over whether or not to include ethnicity in article 6 (and thus on the card) quickly descended into a scuffle. When the chair suggested a vote on a version of the draft law that included nationality, but not ethnicity, a large group of MPs staged a walkout in protest. In the midst of the upheaval, the chair quickly put the law to the vote, after which it was passed. Several MPs protested, calling the decision “unconstitutional,” arguing that it would erase the identity of (minority) ethnic groups in the country if they were not allowed to register by ethnicity as well. Balkh Governor Nur Mohammad Atta, one of the vocal proponents in favour of including ethnicity, warned that if this were not mentioned on the new ID cards, he would not want to collect his. Since then, many have followed his example, warning that if the ID card does not include what they deem essential – whether ethnicity, nationality or religion – they will not want to have one.
The vote was not only controversial for political reasons, but also appeared to have been procedurally shaky, as the MPs who walked out claimed they had broken the quorum. The chair initially argued that as they had not yet left the hall when the vote happened, they could still be counted as present. In the next session, however, he backtracked and said that a commission would need to check whether there had indeed been a quorum.
A week later, the parliament went into its summer recess. The issues were apparently laid to rest, and the draft law was forwarded to the Meshrano Jirga. On 10 November 2013, the Meshrano Jirga managed to ratify the first five articles, but as soon as article 6 was discussed, the meeting descended into a “furious debate.” On top of the usual sensitivities over what should be included, the text of article 6 was discovered to have been changed before the draft law was sent to the Meshrano Jirga for a vote, with nationality omitted from the new version. (3)
The Meshrano Jirga committees that had studied the law suggested the reinsertion of the word “Afghan,” while others again insisted on the inclusion of ethnicity as well. The discussion ended in another walkout. On 26 November 2013, the issue was revisited once more. The session was heated, but the speaker managed to prevent a brawl. When the matter was finally put to the vote, a majority opted to keep the ‘original’ (government) version of article 6 – with no mention of either nationality or ethnicity. (4) The decision led to angry outbursts, and subsequent sessions of both the Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga erupted into fierce shouting matches.
The issue was further polarised when on 27 November 2013, the day after the Meshrano Jirga vote, General Abdul Wahid Taqat, a PDPA-era intelligence official and now political commentator, during a TV talk show (5) insisted that “Pashtun” and “Afghan” were synonymous and Afghanistan was the land of the Pashtuns. (6)
Taqat’s statements caused an uproar in both regular and social media. First, there were demonstrations against both the former general and the TV station, but when the former general was arrested on 12 December 2013, his supporters took to the street and clashed with the police (see here).
The episode was finally defused after Taqat issued a televised apology. At the same time, the Meshrano Jirga was already backtracking and denying that it had removed the word “Afghan” from the card.
It should come as no surprise that, in the midst of all this upheaval in late 2013, President Karzai chose not to sign the law. (It may also have been difficult to determine which version to pick.) Strictly speaking, according to the Constitution, Karzai actually did not need to sign the law for it to be enacted (as argued by MP Shukria Barakzai here), but clearly nobody wanted to touch this. With the elections only four months away, the thorny issue of the e-tazkera and what to include on the card was no longer a priority. That changed, however, once the National Unity Government (NUG) took office.
The National Unity Government revisits the issue
The agreement that established the NUG lists five commitments linked to the convening of a Loya Jirga (that is to decide on the CEO position within two years of the establishment of the NUG). One of these is “the distribution of electronic/computerised identity cards to all the citizens of the country as quickly as possible.”
On 9 November 2014, President Ghani signed the Population Registration Act that was passed by the parliament in 2013, thus ratifying the version that mentioned neither ethnicity nor the word Afghan. (An unofficial translation of the law can be found here, although it appears to be either incomplete or an older version, as under article 6 the reference to religion is missing.) On 3 December 2014, MoI officials announced the start of the e-tazkera distribution.
Unsurprisingly, the signing of the law and the announcement of the restart of the process sparked renewed protests. The president sought to defuse the issue by meeting protesters and civil society activists. According to the presidential spokesperson, he referred the controversial article to the Supreme Court for an opinion. (7) Civil society activists claimed this meant that the process had been halted while the e-tazkera department under the MoI (E-Tazkera Authority or ETA) insisted that the distribution was going ahead and would start within days.
In late December 2014, the Wolesi Jirga readied itself to discuss and amend the law again, but the MPs were so divided that the initiative fizzled out, with delegates accusing each other of illegally sabotaging the issue. In particular, the committee responsible for preparing the new draft was accused of stalling.
Technical preparations and political controversies clash again
In the meantime, technical preparations to start the process continued. In June 2015, the ETA presented the president with its plan for a pilot project that aimed to test all systems and hand out e-cards to the approximately 400,000 citizens that had already been registered in Kabul city. The president ordered the ETA to expedite the distribution of the cards, but at the same time he also embarked on a series of technical and corruption-related reviews (see part 2 of this dispatch), suggesting misgivings on his side over the technical solidity of the project. At this point, the donors, tired of the delays, suspended their funding.
The government continued to give conflicting signals on whether the issuance of the ID cards would start, and the controversy over what should be included in the cards resurfaced again in August 2015. The CEO’s office set 19 August 2015 as the date to launch the pilot project; the president then delayed it. The political class remained divided, with some pushing for a speedy start of the distribution, while others 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, while others continued to demonstrate.
After about a month of protests, (8) the political urgency of the issue seemed to cool and the demonstrations fizzled. In the meantime, the ETA continued efforts to revive the project – also attempting to secure renewed funding and rehire the staff it had been forced to let go – but has so far received little backing from the country’s political leadership. (9) Even if the president and the CEO decide that the main technical concerns of the project have been addressed and that it is now time to at least embark on the pilot project, political sensitivities have been far from resolved and would probably upend any such effort.
Where do we go from here?
The government now finds itself in a difficult bind. Whatever it chooses to do will likely re-spark sentiments that, to a large extent, seem to have been intentionally polarised. If the government includes “Afghan” but not ethnicity, it will run afoul of those who insist on including ethnicity as well. If it goes ahead, based on the existing law (and the seven million cards they have already ordered and received) – with cards that include religion, but not nationality or ethnicity – it threatens to alienate all groups that have cared enough about the issue to protest.
Although nationality and ethnicity are emotive issues, the protests also seem to have served as a warning to the government as a sample of the kind of trouble that political opponents are capable of stirring up. So far, this government has lacked the savvy to negotiate the buy-in of opposing views in the matter and has mainly sought to defer and stall. It would be a major feat if the government could calm the political controversies and focus on reviving the technical process and rekindling donor interests. It is not impossible, but the challenges are enormous.
(1) According to this article, the first phase of the e-tazkera project –setting up the National Data Centre – was delayed due to capacity constraints and was rescheduled to start in mid-2011. Concerns over who would have access to the biometric registration data caused another delay of at least nine months in 2011, as the government put in place protocols to maintain sole ownership of the data. There was also apprehension over the use of the e-tazkera during elections, given the limited availability of electricity in many polling centres.
(2) The Ministry of Interior, by then the lead ministry in the process, clearly stated that the distribution of electronic ID-cards was “too tough a task to be fully completed ahead of the elections.” The MoI estimated that, realistically, 70 per cent of the distribution could be completed within the next three years, and that for the remaining 30 per cent of the population living mainly in insecure and far-flung areas, it could take another three to six years. This was a little over a year before the elections. For more details, see this AAN dispatch from January 2013.
(3) When the issue was later discussed in the Wolesi Jirga, on 30 November 2013, Deputy Speaker Saleh Muhammad Seljuqi blamed the Internal Security Committee, which he said had sent him a “corrected” version of the law claiming spelling errors. Some MPs accused Mirdad Khan Nejrabi, the chair of the commission, of having omitted the word “Afghan” on the instruction of Balkh Governor Nur Muhammad Atta (see this video), while other MPs came to Atta and Nejrabi’s defense.
(4) During earlier discussions in the Wolesi Jirga, talk had been of a compromise in which ethnicity would be registered in a database but not displayed on the card, but when the law was passed, ethnicity had been dropped – both on the card and in the database. According to this article, the Wolesi Jirga had also decided to include religion and takhalus (in the Afghan media sometimes translated as “pen name,” but in essence it involves the introduction of fixed last names). After the Meshrano Jirga reverted to the ‘original’ version of article 6, as drawn up by the government, a joint commission was established to solve the differences between the two houses. This could explain the addition of religion to the version of the law that was finally signed and gazetted.
A suggestion, as argued here, to also include mothers’ names on the e-tazkera, so far does not seem to have gained any traction.
(5) The talk show in which Taqat made his comments was aired by Zhwandun TV, a station owned by Muhammad Ismail Yun, a Pashtun ethno-nationalist and a vocal proponent of the inclusion of “Afghan” on the card. Yun has been a vocal supporter of both Karzai and Ghani during their election campaigns.
(6) The synonymous use of “Afghan” and “Pashtun” was indeed common in the past, both in Afghanistan and in the literature about the country, until around World War II. Governments, for instance, used it between the 1930s and the 1950s to promote (the much less officially used) Pashto. In the decades after, “Afghan” increasingly became recognised as a label of citizenship and nationality. 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.”)
For this reason, some non-Pashtuns have insisted that ethnicity be specified on the card as well. (Another reason to include ethnicity is that such a registration would quantify the relative strength of various groups and could show that so-called ‘minority’ groups are larger than assumed.) Others argue that the display of the logo of the Islamic Afghan Republic at the top of the card should be enough to show the nationality of the cardholder.
(7) It is unclear whether the government is actually still waiting for this opinion, or whether this was simply a way to stall or defer responsibility. A Supreme Court opinion, however, is unlikely to lay the issue to rest, as Afghanistan has two separate organs that are mandated to interpret the Constitution – the Supreme Court and the Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC) – and their authority vis-à-vis each other has not been spelled out. In June 2013, several MPs, arguing in favour of the inclusion of ethnicity, sought to consult the ICSIC – not the Supreme Court (which is traditionally considered closer to the executive) – on article 6.
(8) Demonstrations occurred in, among other places, Kabul, Paktia, Herat, Nangarhar, Balkh and Kunar. See also video footage for Kabul, Balkh, and Nangarhar.
(9) In a nine-page document offering recommendations to the president, the head of the ETA, Humayun Mohtat, reiterated the MoI’s suggestion that “Afghan” be included on the card and ethnicity be registered in a database only – based on international standards and experience, as he said. He called on the president to take leadership and to put the ball back into the parliament’s court by sending them a cabinet-approved suggestion to amend the law.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020