Afghans Confront Sensitive Issue Of Ethnicity Afghanistan is set to issue new national IDs that will have a person's ethnicity embedded in it electronically — but not printed on it. That's renewed debate over a divisive issue in a country made up of many different groups.

Afghans Confront Sensitive Issue Of Ethnicity

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In neighboring Afghanistan, most people live in areas without paved roads or regular electricity, which makes the proposal we're about to hear about seem pretty extravagant. It is a state-of-the-art smart-chip ID card. The government believes creating one might make it easier to collect census data, register voters and deliver health care. But this idea is also fueling a debate over ethnicity and identity, at a time when tensions are already high because of the drawdown of NATO troops.

NPR's Sean Carberry reports.

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

SENATOR MOHAMMAD ALAM EZEDAYAR: (Through interpreter) It's the right of all Afghans to have their ethnicity listed on the card. Ethnicity is mentioned in the constitution and in the national anthem, so it should be on the card, too.

CARBERRY: Ezedayar says that previous ID cards, or taskeras, had identity listed on the face. 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.

There are as many as 14 recognized ethnic groups in the country, with Pashtuns making up somewhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of the population. Tajiks are around 25 percent. Hazaras and Uzbeks are around 9 percent each. Then there are a handful of other groups in smaller numbers. The Taliban, President Hamid Karzai and many prominent government officials are Pashtun.

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

SENATOR BILQEES ROSHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Senator Bilqees Roshan is a Pashtun from western Farah province. She says only a handful of senators from minority groups support putting ethnicity on the card.

ROSHAN: (Through interpreter) I think it's very harmful. In the past 30 years, ethnicity has been misused by people trying to gain more power in the government.

CARBERRY: 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 equally divided. Dashti Barchi is a gritty, blue-collar section of Kabul. The population here is overwhelmingly Hazara. They're the third-largest ethnic group in the country, and they've long felt marginalized as the lower class in Afghanistan. Saeed Mohsen is a university student in Kabul.

SAEED MOHSEN: (Through interpreter) In Afghanistan, everything is divided according to population size of the ethnicities. The military, government jobs, spots in universities, if we are shown as less, then we get less.

CARBERRY: 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.

MOHSEN: (Through interpreter) It is a competition. We want to have more power over other ethnicities.

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

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

CARBERRY: The Ministry of Communications says it plans to start issuing the new smart-chip ID cards without ethnicity on the face as soon as parliament passes the law authorizing the program. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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