What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it seems.  The entire project to issue electronic national identity cards in Afghanistan is in jeopardy over  the right — or perhaps the obligation —  to be called “Afghan.”

Over the past week, the Ministry of the Interior summarily suspended and then reinstated the project, citing lack of financing and “political issues” that needed to be tackled.

The money problem seems to have been resolved for now, but the “political issues” remain, specifically, the uncomfortable question of ethnic identity in a country scarred by decades of war.

The e-tazkira program was started in 2010, with generous funding by the international community. It was supposed to take 36 months, and cost $101.5 million.

According to a statement by the Ministry of Communication & Information Technology, the new ID system would be based on a smartcard, multi-application chip platform, which would facilitate elections as well as taking on the function of driver’s licenses, vehicle registration documents, and a host of other uses that would catapult Afghanistan into the digital age.

The idea was to have the cards ready for the 2014 presidential elections, to short-circuit much of the fraud that has plagued previous election cycles. That, of course, did not happen.

And now, nearly two years after the due date, the cards have still not been issued en masse. Some sample cards have been distributed, but fierce resistance from several sectors of the population have kept the project from being fully implemented.

In early September a wave of demonstrations swept the country, organized by a group demanding that “Afghan” be specified as the nationality of all tazkira holders.

This would not seem controversial: All recipients of e-tazkiras would be Afghan citizens — but “Afghan” is a loaded word for many.

“Anyone who has even a little information about the history of Afghanistan knows that the word ‘Afghan’ is related to Pashtuns,” said Asar Hakimi, a journalist and civi activist, himself an ethnic Tajik.

“Afghan is a tribal identity, not a national one,” he added. “The population registration law which was accepted by the president says that there is no need to mention the word Afghan in Electronic Identity Cards.”

Those advocating for the inclusion of the national identity marker have quite a different view.

“Afghan nationality is something we have inherited from our grandfathers,” said Abdul Sami Wahedi, who took part in the demonstrations in Kabul. “Millions of people sacrificed themselves to keep this nationality alive. The only traditional value that can united the people of Afghanistan is the use of the word ‘Afghan’ on the national identity cards.”

Demonstration for 'Afghan' identity in Khost.

Demonstration for ‘Afghan’ identity in Khost.

But rather than uniting the nation, this issue seems to be driving yet another wedge into Afghanistan’s fragile ethnic relations.

The organizers of the demonstrations took a very hard line, calling those who opposed the inclusion of the “Afghan” designator traitors and enemies of Afghanistan. They issued direct threats against the government if their demands were not met. In addition to more protests, they said in an angry declaration, roads to Kabul would be blocked.

“The illegal action of issuing the Electronic Identity Cards will be stopped with the help of nations’ power,” they affirmed.

At present the e-tazkira holder has the option of specifying his or her ethnic background, but may choose not to do so.

But this laissez-faire attitude does not work with the demonstration organizers.

“The word ‘nation’ is much too important to be optional,” according to the declaration.

While some groups are mired in conflict, many just want to get on with things.

“These demonstrations are not democratic,” said Mohmmad Yasin Negah, editor in chief of the Porsesh weekly magazine. “The electronic identity cards have no problems, and this is a national process. Having an identity card is the legal right of every citizen and this process must be implemented.”


Who is Afghan? Nationality designators on electronic identity cards raise uncomfortable questions

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