Afghans Impatient for New ID Cards

Biometric documents meant to reduce fraud in upcoming parliamentary polls.

Electronic ID cards could make Afghanistan’s elections fairer and contribute to social justice, according to speakers at a series of IWPR-organised debates in four provinces of the country.

Plans to introduce the biometric cards known as “tazkira”, carrying the fingerprints and digital photos of the bearer, were first announced in 2009. As well as reducing opportunities for ballot-fraud, the extensive data contained in the ID cards, such as personal and family status and place of residence, should be a valuable resource for government, giving it a more accurate profile of the population and thus contributing to social and economic policies.

But plans to roll out the ID cards have been hampered by logistical problems and also by sensitivities over the description of all holders as “Afghan”. The intended meaning is “Afghanistan nationals”, but for some the term implies a reference to ethnic Pashtuns, first and foremost.

Speakers at the debates in Kunar, Nangarhar, Zabul and Khost provinces last month were supportive of the ID cards, arguing that they would make for greater transparency and would also help the security agencies check who people were.

In Zabul in the west of the country, Abdul Moqim Afghan, head of  provincial information and culture department, said that the current system was open to abuse, since people could easily obtain multiple identity documents and voting cards in different names.

“Fraud is easy with the current identity cards,” he said. “However, they [fraudsters] cannot obtain the new electronic identity cards. The identities of all voters will be known.”

Afghan added that the information collected for the ID cards would create an accurate population database.

Haji Abdul Karim, deputy head of the province’s IT department, said that the electronic cards carried individual codes guaranteeing their accuracy.

“One person cannot acquire two identity cards in the same name,” he said.

Many speakers expressed frustration at the continuing delays to issuing the new cards, especially with a parliamentary election due this year.

Civil society activist Mohammad Hotak blamed government insiders.

“There are some in government circles whose interests could be harmed by the electronic ID cards,” he said. “If distribution of the electronic cards starts, elections will immediately become transparent. Therefore, those who want to create opportunities for fraud are obstructing distribution.”

In Kunar in eastern Afghanistan, audience members wanted to know why the scheme was taking so long.

Huritullah, from the provincial government’s IT department, said the national telecoms ministry had made all the preparations necessary, but a number of obstacles remained. As well as disagreement about whether to include ethnicity, last year’s lengthy process of electing a new president, which involved a run-off vote and numerous allegations of corruption, had also delayed the process.

Continuing security problems were another factor, he added.

“Security is an important issue for us,” he said. “Even if we started distributing identity cards in Kunar today, there are districts of the province where there’s no security. People from those areas cannot come to the centre and get their ID cards, and officials cannot go out to their areas because the conditions aren’t right.”

In Nangarhar, also in the east, speakers at a debate held in Sorkhrod district agreed that security was essential if ID cards were to be distributed.

The deputy local government chief in Sorkhrod, Abdul Wasey Intizar said that if the international community and the Afghan government delivered on their security pledges, it would be possible to complete distribution of electronic IDs before the election.

“If the electronic ID cards are distributed in time for the upcoming parliamentary election, I can assure you that fraud will be prevented,” he said.

Debate participant Ajmal asked whether the withdrawal of most NATO troops from Afghanistan had slowed distribution of the electronic cards.

Asadullah Dawlatzai, from the provincial government’s statistics office, replied, “The absence or presence of foreigners has got nothing to do with this. What we need is security. If there is security, we can distribute the identity cards.”

This report is based on an ongoing series of debates conducted as part of IWPR’s Afghan Youth and Elections programme.