A multi-million dollar plan to issue new electronic identity cards ahead of elections in Afghanistan has stirred heated debate and ethnic animosity, raising political tension just as the country faces a stepped-up campaign of Taliban attacks.
The dispute is over how nationality will be designated on the new cards, with leading figures from some ethnic groups rejecting the term “Afghan”.
The controversy highlights the difficulties of reaching agreement on just about anything in the diverse, faction-ridden country and comes as President Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, is locked in confrontation with the powerful ethnic Tajik governor of a northern province.
Politicians from Afghanistan’s main ethnic group, the Pashtuns, say nationalities should be recorded as “Afghan”. But that is a term that in the past was used to refer to Pashtuns, and members of other ethnic groups object to its use.
“Our ethnicity is our identity and any ID card with the name ‘Afghan’ on it, will never be acceptable to us. There’s no compromise,” said Farhad Sediqi, an outspoken Tajik lawmaker.
“We’d prefer to have ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ on the identity cards and that covers everything.”
President Ashraf Ghani, who is Pashtun, has delayed the launch of the cards and called for a solution.
But tempers are running high and several sessions of parliament called to debate the matter in recent weeks have ended with exchanges of barbs and threats.
One Pashtun member of parliament, Saheb Khan, warned the assembly he would fight to the death against anyone who did not accept the word Afghan on the ID cards.
“I will defend to the last drop of my blood my identity that is Afghan and it must be included in the document,” he later told Reuters.
The dispute has sparked some protests in Kabul by Pashtuns calling on the government not to bow to the demands of other groups.
No census has been conducted in Afghanistan for decades and estimates of the size of different groups are contentious. Pashtuns and Tajiks are the two main groups with smaller numbers of Hazara, Uzbeks and others.
Hazara member of parliament Mohammad Akbari said the use of the word Afghan was an unfair imposition on non-Pashtuns.
“This is a country of all of us, not only Pashtuns,” Akbari told Reuters.
Ghani issued a decree last year on amendments to the law to include nationality, ethnicity and religion on the cards but parliament rejected it. Various amendments have been floated since then but the deadlock continues.
Afghanistan’s former kings were Pashtun, as was Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai. But ethnic Tajiks rose to powerful positions in government, the military and security services after the ouster of the mostly Pashtun Taliban in 2001.
The current government emerged from a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal after a disputed 2014 election when both Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who draws support from Tajiks, claimed victory amid accusations of fraud on both sides.
The deal has been beset by disputes, partly over appointments being carved up along ethnic lines.
Ghani’s stand-off with Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, who is Tajik and who is defying efforts to replace him, has threatened to destabilise the administration and raised fears the government could try to use force to break the stalemate.
Such fears revive memories of civil war in the 1990s, fought largely along ethnic lines, in which more than 100,000 people were killed.
Ghani is also facing pressure to improve security after a Taliban bomb in Kabul killed 103 people, a week after a raid on a hotel killed some 30 people.
The ID cards, known as e-Tazkira, are seen as an important step to avoid fraud in delayed parliamentary elections, due this year, and a presidential election next year.