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Afghans Confront Sensitive Issue Of Ethnicity

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. That ethnic group accounts for between 40 percent and 50 percent of Afghanistan's population. The Taliban and many top officials are also Pashtun.
Raigo Pajula
AFP/Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. That ethnic group accounts for between 40 percent and 50 percent of Afghanistan's population. The Taliban and many top officials are also Pashtun.

In Afghanistan, where most people are illiterate and live in areas without paved roads or regular electricity, a state-of-the-art smart-chip ID card may seem extravagant. But the government believes it can help with everything from census data to voter registration to health care.

The format of the proposed card, however, is fueling debate over ethnicity and identity at a time when anxiety is already high over the drawdown of NATO troops.

Each citizen's ethnicity will be embedded in the electronic data in the new ID, or "e-taskera," rather than printed on the face of the card. Mohammad Alam Ezedayar, an Afghan senator, was among politicians who debated the issue recently. He doesn't think the new card goes far enough.

"It's the right of all Afghans to have their ethnicity listed on the card," he says. "Ethnicity is mentioned in the constitution and in the national anthem, so it should be on the card too."

Ezedayar says that previous ID cards, or taskeras, had a person's identity printed on them. He says the new e-taskera should, too. He and other prominent politicians from minority groups say they will refuse to register for the new card if it doesn't list identity.

Powerful Source Of Division

There are as many as 14 recognized ethnic groups in the country, with Pashtuns making up between 40 percent and 50 percent of the population. Tajiks account for about 25 percent, while Hazaras and Uzbeks are about 9 percent each. Then there are a handful of other groups in smaller numbers.

The Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and many prominent government officials are Pashtun.

Ezedayar is a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley in the north of the country. That's the home of the legendary mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massood, who was killed in 2001, and the heart of anti-Taliban resistance. Tajiks have battled Pashtuns militarily and politically for influence in Afghanistan over the years.

Bilqees Roshan, another Afghan senator, is a Pashtun from western Farah province. Sitting in her home amid crumbling and bullet-riddled houses that used to belong to Soviet diplomats in the 1980s, she says only a handful of senators from minority groups support putting ethnicity on the card.

"I think it's very harmful," she says. "In the past 30 years, ethnicity has been misused by people trying to gain more power in the government."

In the '90s, Afghanistan's civil war broke down largely along ethnic lines. To this day, each ethnic group has its chief power broker: Most are former warlords, who cut deals over the distribution of government posts.

Roshan says Afghanistan needs to move beyond ethnic divisions and quota-based thinking. She says keeping ethnicity off the e-taskera is an important step in that direction.

Opinions on the street are also divided.

Dashti Barchi is a gritty blue-collar section of Kabul. The population here is overwhelmingly Hazaras — who are a dual minority in Afghanistan. They are predominantly Shiite Muslims, rather than the majority Sunni, and they are believed to be ethnically of Mongolian or East Asian descent. They've long felt marginalized as the lower class in Afghanistan.

Many of the businesses in this area are set up in old shipping containers. In one is a small barbershop festooned with photos of European soccer players and a picture of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeni. Many Hazaras feel a kinship with Iran because of their shared Shiite faith.

"There is no reason to list ethnicity on the card. Afghan is sufficient," says Mohammad Jafar, who is waiting for a haircut.

He admits that's not a common opinion among Hazaras, who he says generally have more passionate views on the subject.

"I am proud of being Afghan, but what is wrong with mentioning ethnicity?" asks Saifulzul Husseini, an engineer. He sells flowers and provides battery-charging services in the neighboring container.

"Nobody denies we are all Afghans, but after that we must have ethnicity listed because it is our identity," says Husseini.

Defense Against, Or Tool For, Discrimination

As we talk, a crowd of curious onlookers gathers and listens to the conversation. One person is Saeed Mohsen, a university student in Kabul.

"In Afghanistan, everything is divided according to population size of the ethnicities," he says. "The military, government jobs, spots in universities — if we are shown as less, then we get less."

He argues it's critical to list ethnicity so that the government and society know the exact percentage of each group. He and many others argue the percentage of Pashtuns is overstated, and as a result, they get a larger share of power and jobs.

"It's a competition," says Mohsen. "We want to have more power over other ethnicities."

He mentions the ethnic-based civil war in the '90s. He says it's important to grab as much power as possible right now in case another civil war breaks out as NATO troops leave.

Bashir Shirzad, 33, used to work as an interpreter for NATO forces. He also wants ethnicity listed. He believes that Hazara people suffer because they don't have as many representatives in government.

"We don't have asphalt roads. We don't have schools, we don't have hospitals, there is no construction [in Hazara areas]," he says.

Shirzad says that in Kandahar security is bad, but they are getting much more investment because they are Pashtun.

Saeed Mobeen, who also works as an interpreter, agrees that there is discrimination in Afghan society. But he says the solution isn't to reinforce ethnic identity.

"All the problems that we have is coming from the ethnicities that we have," he says. "We are all Afghan, and we should be equal at the same level, no matter if we are Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek or Pashtun."

The Ministry of Communications says it plans to start issuing the new smart-chip ID cards without ethnicity printed on them as soon as Parliament passes the law authorizing the program.

NPR's Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sean Carberry
Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.