THERE are two questions Hajera Bashir does not ask as she goes door to door gathering census data in Ghor province in Afghanistan’s freezing central highlands: which ethnic group residents belong to, and what language they speak at home.

With these taboo topics set aside, she quizzes families about everything else: their income and how many wives each man has, whether they can read and if their sons and daughters are in school, domestic details such as how they heat their homes, whether they have a toilet and if they keep chickens.

The shy 18-year-old is part of a critical but controversial effort to count the Afghan population for the first time since 1979.

Expected to take at least six years on a slow, province-by-province basis, it is possible only because it sidesteps tangled questions about the country’s ethnic balance. Asking about language is avoided because it can be used as a proxy marker for ethnicity.

Still, the complexity of Afghanistan’s ethnic politics means any kind of counting is controversial. The first results, from normally calm central Bamiyan province, showed an actual population barely half official estimates. The area is mostly home to Hazaras, a Shia minority who have often been persecuted in Sunni-dominated Afghanistan, and many took the findings as another form of attack.

“Death to the enemies of Bamiyan! The statistics are wrong!” shouted more than 1,000 demonstrators as they marched on UN offices in the small town this summer.

A previous attempt to end the decades-long wait for a count of the Afghan people, in 2008, was scrapped, with the government citing security problems. In December officials even dropped plans to unveil a new estimate of the population.

Although war has often put swaths of the country off-limits to statisticians, bitter ethnic politics have also played a role in slow progress, because of the risks that a population count might reduce the official size of some constituencies or expand those of rivals.

“If a politician sees that the ethnic group to which he or she belongs is less than expected, they will sometimes reject the data,” said Abdul Rahman Ghafoori, head of the Central Statistics Office, who has the delicate job of balancing his country’s need for decent data against the influence of groups who would rather details remain opaque or unchanged.

He is trying to capture his country in numbers with a staff of just 800, and an ambivalent population. “Statistics is a new thing for most people in Afghanistan,” he said, “they don’t feel it’s a need, a necessity.”

It is hard to overstate how few reliable numbers there are about population or anything else in Afghanistan, or what a problem this is for those trying to bolster the economy, distribute aid, decide where clinics should be built or how many teachers recruited, or do any other kind of long-term planning.

The estimates are muddied by years of violence, death and exodus, to Pakistan, Iran or further afield; there are only educated guesses about how many people survived, how many returned and how many have since been born.

So far only three provinces have been counted, and they are among the most secure in the country. Security problems are likely to be added to political tensions as teams spread out in more restive areas. But the slow timetable, with the final provinces not due to be surveyed until 2016, may help limit political opposition to the project. — The Guardian, London


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