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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 December 2003, 07:43 GMT
Afghans eye up new constitution
Crispin Thorold
By Crispin Thorold
BBC correspondent in Kabul

For most democracies, the foundation stone of the state is a written constitution.

An Afghan family aboard a bus
The future of Afghanistan is about to be decided

Most take years to write - but in Afghanistan, one has been produced at break-neck speed.

In just eight months, a draft has been prepared for consideration by 500 delegates to a loya jirga - a grand assembly of tribal and regional leaders.

The meeting is being held in the Afghan capital, Kabul. But many fear the constitution, rather than uniting Afghans, may divide them further.

'Education before constitution'

In a cafe in central Kabul, Shahid Shafiq, a Kabul Tajik and Mirwais, a Pashtun from the city of Jalalabad, discuss the constitution and what it means for them.

Qari Obaidurahman
The customs and culture of Afghanistan have been taken from Islam
Qari Obaidurahman

Mirwais wants the constitution to establish civil and human rights for all Afghans.

"Right now we face many dangers. Even in the capital we are not safe," he says.

But Mr Shafiq argues that very few people are actually aware of what a constitution is.

"People in Kabul are literate and quite aware of things - but outside, most people have very little idea what it means."

But he believes that, with education, the constitution can unite the various factions.

"In the past, during all the fighting, people only thought of themselves as a Tajik or a Pashtun. But the constitution can remove such ideas."

Well-trodden path

At Kabul's central mosque, Qari Obaidurahman preaches his weekly sermon.

Pashtuns like Mirwais still fear for their safety

He believes the constitution must be faithful to Islam to be acceptable to all Muslims.

"The people will have to stand against everything that is unacceptable to them," he says.

The mullah believes that means people must demonstrate in the streets.

If that fails, he says, there's only one path.

He is implying a return to a path that has been trodden all too well by the Afghans - a return to violence.

Big tent

Few have any doubt about the importance of the meeting that will be held at the Kabul Polytechnic in the next few weeks.

The physical preparations for the loya jirga to debate the constitution are well under way.

A tent, capable of holding thousands, has been built and a security cordon has been thrown around the site.

Tajik militiamen
Afghanistan could go either way: onward to prosperity, or back to war

Every eventuality is being prepared for, but the fear is that if there's any doubt about the efficacy of the loya jirga, Afghanistan's future may be bleak.

Farouk Wardak is Director of the Constitutional Commission Secretariat.

"All we want to make sure is that there is no intimidation, that there is no use of force," he says.

"As soon as people are elected, then we bring them straight away to the convention. And there is less chance for those who want to intimidate to do so."

Women on guard

There have already been reports of some intimidation.

They don't want the women to leave home and demand what they're entitled to
Humaira, women's rights activist

Earlier this month I was in Jalalabad, in the east of the country, where two women who were standing for election told me they had suffered intimidation.

Humaira is a women's activist in the eastern city, Jalalabad.

Like so many other areas of Afghanistan, the gun rules in this region.

Powerful, conservative commanders run all aspects of life.

"On the way to my office I was stopped by armed men and was told I should resign, not stand for the election."

"This was not only a blow against me, it was against all women here."

'A nation being built'

But the ballot box is slowly challenging those that wield the Kalashnikov.

I met more than 250 community leaders from the remote north eastern province, Nuristan, crammed into a room in Jalalabad.

They had endured a 10 hour bone-crunching bus journey along a tortuous mountain pass, all to select their province's representatives to the loya jirga.

One elector, Dr Abdul Ghafour Noon, says this is a civic duty that will lead to nationhood.

"The loya jirga is very important for us. For 25 years, Afghanistan was destroyed and we would like to rebuild our home. To reunite our poor people, orphans, refugees and widows," he says.

"This constitution is the route to a nation. It is necessary and compulsory, we have to approve it and then follow its laws."

Afghanistan is a country at a crossroads.

A nation is being built. In the weeks to come much will be decided about the shape and character of the new Afghanistan.

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