With growing disagreements over how power should be split in Afghanistan, the delegates descending on the Loya Jirga meeting to select the country's next government have their work cut out.
An eye to the future: Delegates gather in Kabul for an emergency Loya Jirga meeting.
The chairs were ready, but the tent was empty. Afghanistan's long-awaited Loya Jirga, which was set to begin Monday, has been delayed for 24 hours.
Mohammed Zahir Shah
Sources say disagreements between the Northern Alliance and those who support a role for former king Mohammand Zahir Shah (photo) in the new government caused the delay. But an Afghan spokesman said logistical problems led to the postponement.
"Those reasons have to do with bringing delegates from the four corners of the country," said government spokesman Ghany Ahmed Zia, "from processing them, from accommodating them and from attending to them."
In recent days, more than 1,500 delegates have traveled to Kabul. Some have been elected or appointed. It's alleged that some others paid their way into the assembly. During the week-long Loya Jirga meeting, the delegates will determine the future political landscape of Afghanistan - at least for the next two years.
With more than 10,000 Afghan and foreign soldiers patrolling the area in and near the site, security is tight. The troops are there to prevent the Loya Jirga from being marred by the political violence that has dominated the country's history for decades. That violence flared up again recently, as eight delegates were assasinated before the meeting.
The Loya Jirga, or "grand council," represents a centuries-old tradition of ruling in Afghanistan through political consensus. The postponement of its meeting until Tuesday serves as an indication of how difficult it may be to reconcile the interests of the country's many ethnic groups.
The Pashtuns in the south, the former Taliban stronghold, feel they have been underrepresented in the interim government. The Hazara tribe from the central Bamiyan province will also be looking for more power. The Northern Alliance - dominated by ethnic Usbeks and Tajiks - may have to give up some of the key ministerial and government posts they currently hold.
Meanwhile, though most expect that the current Afghan interim president, Hamid Karzai (photo), will be elected to retain his position, the role of former King Mohammed Zahir Shah is going to be under discussion and is also said to have been one of the reason's the Loya Jirga was delayed until Tuesday.
The delegates to the Loya Jirga were elected by their communities and selected from professions and interest groups. The people of Afghanistan have high expectations of them - they want an end to uncertainty and they want a future of peace and stability.
For 38 years, Shamsudin Sultan has directed traffic at a major intersection in downtown Kabul. He has seen the king drive by, watched Russians come and go and, recently, the Taliban.
But there have never been more cars in the streets than now, he says. It's with great pride that he describes the new era of Afghanistan reconstruction.
"Since the Taliban have gone, people in Afghanistan are free, men and women alike," Sultan said. "The Loya Jirga will bring lasting peace to our country. The Taliban have robbed our wages of the last six months, but the people who are now in government pay our wages on time, and we're sure it will remain that way."
Stable government still needed
Life hasn't been as easy for everyone in Afghanistan. The craftsmen on Haji Kub square wish they had it that good. Every morning at 6 a.m., they arrive here to offer their services. They are also placing their hopes in the Loya Jirga.
"We come here every day," says one. "We want to work, but most evenings we return home with empty hands. We need a stable government and the help of the International community. They have to create jobs for the poor who currently have little hope."
A new role for women
But while others hope, Dschamila Mudjahed has already made one of her dreams a reality. After the Taliban fled, she founded Afghanistan's first women's newspaper, "Seerat." The top story in the current issue is, of course, the Loya Jirga, and the fact that only one-in-eight representatives on the assembly is a woman.
"There are still too many men in Afghanistan who don't want women in the workplace," Mudjahed said. "But we try to argue our case and convince them. We tell them that 50 percent of society are women. We represent the poor, the orphans and the children of Afghanistan, and we intend to fight for their rights in the Loya Jirga."
Under the Taliban, Dschamila was confined to her home for six long years, and she had to wear a Burkha. Now, she's cast it off. But Dschamilia is an exception - most women still wear the blue cloak which became the symbol of the repressed status of women in Afghanistan.
"God willing, Afghanistan is going to build a real army after the Loya Jirga," she said. "There will be no irresponsible soldiers and commanders. When women no longer fear the military, they will be free. They'll cast off their Burkhas and go back to their jobs."
Not all women share this kind of optimism.
Over at the polytechnical university, where the Loya Jirga is set to take place, soldiers are keeping a high profile on the streets.
And while Dschamila describes her dream that there will be an understanding between all sections of society in Afghanistan, the soldiers inspect her thoroughly and repeatedly.
The threat of attack
There is grave concern that Al Qaida and supporters of the various war lords may try to cause unrest.
"We know very well that not everybody in the country supports the Loya Jirga," said Col. Helen Wildman, an English spokeswoman for the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force. "A minority is unsatisfied and will try to disturb the Loya Jirga, maybe with car bombs or suicide attacks. That's why we devised contingency plans together with the interim government," she said.
That's why delegates are not allowed to leave the compound as long as the Loya Jirga is in session - it's a measure to enable them to take their decisions without any outside pressure.
"The Loya Jirga is our only chance"
Most believe there is no alternative to the Loya Jirga in contemporary Afghanistan, so most are optimistic that it will bring good results.
"The Loya Jirga is our only chance," said Abdul Shalil, a delegate. "So, we hope it will bring peace and stability to Afghanistan."
"The Afghan people thirst for peace. Everybody wants peace, and we are sure that after the Loya Jirga, power will be taken from the warlords and given to a government which brings back peace and democracy to Afghanistan," said another delegate named Sharif.
The female delegates arrived at the compound two days ago. UN aid workers have organized special courses to help them assert themselves effectively.
"The main point was to make it clear to them that they have to join together in order to make their voices heard, thatb they have to think strategically," said Fatiha Serour, a deputy to U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. "There are 200 women against 1300 men. So, they have to learn how to exploit their strong points in order to make their political influence felt in the Loya Jirga."
Democracy in its infancy
But women aren't the only political group that feels it has been left out of the Loya Jirga. Others, too, believe they've been unfairly sidelined and are complaining to the commission, on the eve of the assembly.
"I've come here every day for 16 days, but they don't let me through," said Jusif Arlef, an elected official from Faria. "I am entitled to being a delegate, but they've falsified everything. It's unbelievable."
Magari Panjishiri, an elected official from Gardes, pointed to the electoral register of his home province, Gardes, and implored: "We are entitled to taking part, we gave the electoral commission our register, but they simply didn't want to know."
Thomas Ruttig, the official liaison between the Loya Jirga commission and the U.N., said these were the problems of a "democracy in its infancy". The commission, he said, has received reports of massive repression of candidates and of politically motivated murders. Preparing the Loya Jirga was difficult enough, officials say, but it will be even more difficult to produce a compromise.
There's a lot of pressure upon the political leaders. People expect that after many futile attempts, the Loya Jirga will eventually bring peace," Ruttig said. "People are worn out. They want peace, and the political leaders would discredit themselves if they went on as before."
But many reckon that it will take some time for the federal government to bring the provincial governors and warlords under control. It may even be an impossible task.
But on this day there is no room for pessimism. For most Afghans the worst thing would be to give up hope.