Majority of references to conditions in contemporary Afghanistan are mentioned in a context of its fragile security, institutionalized corruption, and public officials’ widespread incompetence. One topic that encompasses all three categories is population enumeration. Afghanistan has never conducted a full census (1979 census was only partially completed); its current demographic numbers are estimates and projections. This is extremely important in terms of political power struggle and ethnic geography.
In multi-ethnic countries each group tends to inflate its own numbers, hoping to translate it into acquisition of more political power and territory on the account of other ethnic groups. As a result, estimates and projections can be and most likely are significantly inaccurate. The only way to resolve the issue is by conducting a proper ethnic population enumeration. In Afghanistan, however, that will not happen in the foreseeable future.
An alternative method to a full census would be counting personal identity cards of Afghanistan’s citizens, which are due to be released after many delays and debates. The years-long debate about the issues pertaining to electronic identity cards has further polarized major ethnic groups. Pashtuns, the self-proclaimed largest ethnic group, have insisted on excluding ethnic affiliation on the ID card. Other groups, which cumulatively outnumber the Pashtuns, supported an inclusion of ethnic affiliation on ID cards’ holders, aware of its significance as an indirect ethnic census. In Afghanistan’s Continuous Struggle With Itself: The Census and Ethnicity Issue I noted:
The process of registering Afghan population via issuing identity cards began in 2010 and is yet to be fully implemented. The goal is to use this opportunity to also indirectly enumerate the country’s actual population, but the process has been stalled for years despite international pressure.
Notoriously corrupt system aside, which slow down everything in Afghanistan, the main problem revolves around what to list on the identity card and what put in the card’s electronic memory in regard to the holder’s nationality [keep in mind that, unlike in the United States, nationality is synonymous with ethnicity in much of Eurasia, rather than with citizenship].
As officials were finally prepared to issue some cards, people began protesting again, as they had done in previous years. The majority of protests this month occurred in predominantly Pashtun-populated southern and eastern provinces (Figure 2). If the word Afghan and Islam are not included on the card’s face, the protesters claimed, they would act accordingly against the process of distributing the identity cards. They also claimed that they have no issues if the tribal or ethnic—terms they use interchangeably—affiliation is in the card’s memory.
Figure 2. Record of protests against electronic identity cards and the provinces with the (estimated) ratio of Pashtun population. In Ghazni, Pashtuns form nearly half the population (the rest are nearly all Hazara), while in Baghlan and Balkh their ratio is much lower. Provinces with over 50 percent are overwhelmingly Pashtun. Source: multiple news agencies.
Non-Pashtuns and their representatives are clear about their views that ethnicity must be included one way or another. Division is also evident among the news agencies and their scale and emphasis of reporting and commenting about the protests, because they, too, cater to specific ethnic audiences.
Distribution of identification cards is the de facto ethnic population enumeration. If the government decides to keep the information undisclosed, that will likely mean that non-Pashtuns hold a higher ratio than previously believed, or that the ratio of Pashtuns is significantly lower than what they would be willing to accept.
The government’s final decision was to exclude the ethnic affiliation on ID cards. This did not sit well with non-Pashtuns. Most recently, a protest in Badakhshan Province confirmed their displeasure. Among the speakers at the protest was Mr. Latif Pedram, a Member of Parliament from Badakhshan, who noted ‘“I would like to announce to (President Ashraf) Ghani that if he does not stop it (e-NIC rollout) and does not bring changes and does not respect the demands of Majlis (parliament) and does not surrender to justice, I warn that we will fight for an independent and sovereign Badakhshan.”’ Others commented about further escalation of ethnic tensions and possible violence as a result of the government’s decision to issue ID cards in their current form, including Mr. Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO of the National Unity Government, who “Later held a press conference and said the electronic ID card system was not legitimate and did not have the support of the Afghan people.”
In 2011, when I interviewed Mr. Padram in Kabul City our conversation touched on the issue of national census. He said that “Civil war that may break out post 2014 will be more vicious, because people have more interest in self-empowerment and are more determined and war-experienced. Demographic problem presents a structural dilemma and cannot be ignored, band aided, or diffused in any other aspect unless the issue is addressed head on. Ignoring demographic issues in Afghanistan may add a couple of years of time, but after that it will explode because it was ignored in the first place.”Figure 1. Mr. Latif Pedram (left) at his office on September 7, 2011, with one of my colleagues. (Photograph taken by the author.)
Nearly seven years later it is evident that a structural dilemma related to ethnic demographics continues to plague Afghan society and the band aid is not working. If a past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, then the final outcome of ethnic tensions will lead to a repeat of the 1992-1996 Civil War. Not even the Communists were able to balance ethnic requests with success; I elaborated on this issue in another article with excerpts below:
“Trying to accommodate ethnic groups through patch work is mainly trying to mask the greater problems. During the Soviet occupation, hoping to preserve the state the Afghan government tried a different, more administrative approach. It created a new, predominantly Uzbek, Sar-i Pul Province from Jowzjan’s territory to accommodate then-General and now-Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum (who is currently commanding a fighting force against the predominantly Pashtun insurgents in Faryab). That decision did not sit well in the south, which led to creation of Khost Province—carved from Paktya Province—as another Pashtun southern province. And it also did not help prevent the Communist regime’s ultimate fall and subsequent civil war (1992-1996) fought, unsurprisingly, along ethnic lines. In 2004, Panjshir valley was separated from Parwan and became a new (Kohistani) Tajik dominated province, while Daikundi was split from Uruzgan to form a Hazara dominated province. This was the last province created in an attempt to accommodate ethnic issues. A number of other provinces are currently split along sharp ethnic lines. Among them Maidan Wardak, Ghazni, and Kapisa, are of particular importance. Along with Kabul City and Kabul province, they form Afghanistan’s backbone and the border between the Pashtun dominated south and the north where their influence is rather limited. A future division of these provinces along north-south lines could be the first step in the disintegration of Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan’s internal affairs regarding ethnic issues show that patches do not work and are only contributing to further instability. Short of a miracle, no public policy—even when supported with a foreign military intervention—can preserve the status quo of ignoring the demands of non-Pashtuns. After the Western intervention in 2001, with the help of foreign experts Afghanistan was built as a house of cards, having little national identity and barely standing firm against even the slightest pressure. Ironically, the issue of identity and cards may become a key factor in this country’s demise from its current form.