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New ID system centralizes demographic data

Zafar Shah Rouyee
A controversial electronic card system aims to improve the transparency of elections.
17.08.2015  |  Kabul
Printed in Pashto, Dari and English, the new electronic IDs will store citizens' biometric data. (photo: Courtesy photo)
Printed in Pashto, Dari and English, the new electronic IDs will store citizens' biometric data. (photo: Courtesy photo)

Few recent political events have threatened Afghanistan's stability as much as last year's chaotic presidential election, when widespread accusations of vote-rigging precipitated a crisis that brought the country to the brink of civil war. To prevent similar situations in the future and gather reliable demographic data, the Unity government is taking steps to implement a new system of electronic ID cards.

Funded mostly by the European Union at an estimated cost of $120 million, the new ID cards will be in Dari, Pashtu and English. They will contain a memory chip where additional information, including driving license numbers and biometric data will be stored. This information will be saved in the data systems of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Telecommunications and will be electronically shared with local institutions, said Zemari Baher, the director of registration for the Electronic Identification Unit.

Currently, the people of Afghanistan use an A4 piece of paper issued by the Ministry of Interior as their identification cards. All personal data is handwritten, and the potential for fraud is virtually unchecked. Many people have several identification cards.

After two years of preparations and several delays, Interior Ministry officials plan to launch a pilot program for electronic IDs in the coming months. President Ashraf Ghani twice requested a report on the project's progress, but an official launch date had not been made public as of press time. The ministry will set an official date after another forthcoming meeting with Ghani, Baher said.

“There are no obstacles to issuing electronic identification cards,” Baher added. “[Ghani] wants to make sure that personal information is kept safe.”

The project was originally set up to launch in time for last year's presidential election, in which the lack of proper voter identification verification left the door open for widespread fraud. One reason for its belated launch is an older controversy over the issue of ethnicity.

In 2013, Afghan MPs debated a bill proposing new criteria for a national census, which included the option for respondents to specify their ethnicity. Most MPs of Pashtun ethnic background wanted the ethnicity specification to be removed from electronic IDs and replaced with the word “Afghan.” The representatives of smaller minorities categorically rejected this idea, and wanted the ID cards to include  information on all Afghan ethnic groups.

Like many sensitive social issues, this controversy spread beyond the Wolesi Jirga and led the leaders of prominent ethnic minorities to issue stark warnings on the subject. Supporters of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who currently serves as First Vice-President and leads the Uzbek community in Afghanistan, demonstrated in the northern provinces to express their opposition against the removal of ethnicity specifications. Ata Muhammad Noor, the acting governor of Balkh province and a powerful Tajik politician, also opposed the bill. After months of debate which caused significant delays to the project, Afghan MPs agreed to exclude the ethnicity category from the ID cards altogether.

Aside from preventing electoral fraud and gathering reliable demographic data, the government hopes to use the new ID card system to improve national security by strengthening border control. Although ethnic data will not appear on the ID cards themselves, the project aims to “determine the percentage of each ethnicity in the country,” according to information made available on the Electronic Identification Unit's Facebook page. “The government will be able to allocate resources correctly and restore social justice.”

Still, the Electronic Identification Cards Distribution Department foresees security problems with the issuance of ID cards to Afghans living near the Pakistan border who are Pashtun, hold dual citizenship and can cross the border freely.

Toward e-government

After training staff and activating special printing machines, which have already been imported, Baher said the government will distribute the new ID cards in four phases: “Information will be collected, information will be recorded in databases, biometrics will be received and finally cards will be distributed.”

“In the fourth phase, for the second time and as scheduled, all family members will be invited to identification card distribution centers,” Baher added. “Each family member will have to give their fingerprints to activate their identification cards. Then, they will be able to get their identification cards and use them.”

 The new system may lower the costs of future elections, said Sedeequllah Towhidi, deputy commissioner at the Elections Reform Commission, a body created after last year's election to reform electoral processes.

 “If people have electronic identification cards, then there is no need for voting cards. Electronic identification cards have all the information of a voter,” Towhidi said. “Currently, one person can have several identification cards and with those, they can get several voting cards.”

It is unlikely that the system will be ready in time for the upcoming parliamentary election, said Muhammad Yousuf Rasheed, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. Originally scheduled for early 2015, the third Afghan parliamentary election remains indefinitely postponed due to the government’s delay in reforming relevant electoral laws and institutions.

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