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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 12:19 GMT
Swapping ballots for bullets
Nick Bryant
By Nick Bryant
BBC correspondent, Kabul

Loya Jirga delegates
More than 500 delegates will attend the Loya Jirga
Delegates from around Afghanistan have been gathering for a national grand assembly, as the country strives for progress along the road to democracy.

Through the jagged teeth of a thicket of razor wire I caught my first glimpse of the children's choir who were bussed in to perform at the opening ceremony of the Loya Jirga.

They were dressed in a range of traditional Afghan costumes, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks.

Each one was beautifully woven, each one carefully selected to convey a powerful political statement, that at the very outset of this ancient gathering, every faction and every tribe should come together to craft and fashion a new constitution.

As we waited for our bags to be checked for guns and bombs, a photographer dropped to his knee to capture one of the most telling images of the entire week, of the boys and girls being swept through the security gates by an edgy looking soldier from the Afghan national army.

The 150 female delegates are unafraid to show their faces or to show their emotions

A snapshot of this country's past and present, a well worn gun and a hopeful young face. But what of the future?

The trajectory is being plotted and argued over under a vast white tent festooned with Afghan flags, which is serving as an unlikely cradle for the new constitution.

The signs of change are everywhere. There are the radiant smiles of the 150 female delegates, unafraid to show their faces, unafraid to show their emotions, the majority of whom won election to this body.

Then there is the seemingly limitless number of procedural motions, themselves an indication of progress, for regular shows of hands are much more preferable than the brandishing of arms.

Interim Afghanistan leader Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai has been Afghanistan's interim leader since the end of the war
And then there is President Hamid Karzai, one of the main architects of the draft constitution, and just about the only political figure capable of lending any real meaning to its words.

No wonder that his American guards watch so closely. He is the one man who stands any chance of holding this country together.

But the violent past is represented here as well. Militia commanders, like Uzbek leader General Dostum, are given prominent front row seats since agreements on a new constitution would be impossible in the warlords' absence.

And then there is the bunker-style security arrangements, a constant reminder of a resurgent Taleban which has vowed to disrupt these proceedings.

The UN claims it is simply too dangerous to work in 40% of Afghanistan's far flung provinces

So far they have gone on pretty much as planned with a series of heated debates over a raft of contentious issues, from the power of the presidency to the rights of the country's women.

But one of the most awkward questions probably will not be formally debated at all - whether Afghanistan is truly ready for elections planned for June and whether a rush to democracy will do more harm then good.

For this is a country without national political parties, where the bullet continues to vie with the ballot and where the United Nations claims it is simply too dangerous to work in 40% of its far-flung provinces.

In the present climate free and fair nationwide elections would be impossible. After all, the first necessity of a stable democracy is a stable security situation, something which Afghanistan is unable to boast.

Afghan militiamen
Afghan militia have been handing in their weapons in a disarmament programme
Hamid Karzai may well be able to project a polished image abroad but he is finding it increasingly difficult to exert authority over his country.

This week for instance he cut the ribbon on a new highway linking Kabul with the south of the country.

The road to Kandahar is now paved with asphalt, but it is lined still with menace and fear. Even the American aid agency which paid for most of its construction prefers to travel by air.

A simple truth is hard to ignore - that right now at least, this country just does not fit the neat democratic template favoured so much by Washington's neo-conservatives.

By the time we had eventually passed through the security ring, the children's choir was about to perform.

They sang of a land tired of suffering and unfaithfulness, of a land lonely and unhealed, of stars and moons, of poetry and song, and of saddened hearts.

The advent of democracy will hopefully lift them, but it may well have to wait.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 20 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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