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Afghanistan: Tight Security In Kabul For Emergency Loya Jirga

To prepare a site for Afghanistan's emergency Loya Jirga, the international community has spent more than $7 million to refurbish part of the campus of Kabul's Polytechnic Institute. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visited the site ahead of tomorrow's opening of the Loya Jirga to see how the delegates will live and work there during the weeklong assembly.

Kabul, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just six weeks ago, the site where Afghanistan's Emergency Loya Jirga convenes tomorrow was mostly a collection of bomb-damaged and windowless buildings.

The buildings belong to the Kabul Polytechnic Institute, which has a dusty campus on the northwestern edge of the city. During the early 1990s, the campus was frequently shelled and looted as the mujahedin groups that had defeated the Soviets fought among themselves for control of the capital.

During those conflicts, and later under the repressive Taliban, the Polytechnic Institute continued to function as best it could. Its several hundred boarding students lived in makeshift dormitories and studied subjects like industrial engineering and mining, hoping that one day their country might again have need of such professions.

In recent weeks, most classes have stopped as half of the campus has been given over to the Loya Jirga. And instead of students, the grounds are filled with more than 1,500 delegates from every region of the country, ranging from white-bearded tribal elders to turbaned religious leaders to Western-dressed professionals and politicians.

To prepare for the Loya Jirga, many of the buildings have been so completely refurbished that they now are almost unrecognizable to the institute's students, who have been banned from the area temporarily. Dormitories have been repaired and painted, and new windows have been installed. At the far end of the campus stands a giant white tent that looks like the center of a trade fair. The transformation is all part of a more than $7 million effort to give Afghanistan a meeting place large enough, and modern enough, for a national convention.

The preparation of the site was funded primarily by the European Union and several European states and has required bringing in hundreds of tons of construction, communications, and security equipment. It has even required digging a well to provide the area with a sufficient supply of water.

Andreas von Schumann of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) is the man who oversaw the preparation of the Loya Jirga site. He recently described to our correspondent some the work that has been done. "When we started our work here on the premises, all the buildings were destroyed by the [mujahedin civil] war from 1992 to 1996. First of all, we had to clean the area, then we had to work out in concept how it is possible to organize such a conference on this site.... Then we started with the construction work. We had only a six-week time [period] for it. We did it with Afghan subcontractors. We had more than 500 workers on site, and we brought in more than 460 tons of material, most of [which] was the tent, conference equipment, and security equipment," von Schumann said.

Today, the most noticeable feature of the campus is the giant enclosed tent in which most of the Loya Jirga proceedings will take place. It is a huge white canvas canopy over a framework of metal walls that have doors but no windows. Inside, the delegates sit in rows of metal chairs before a stage where the faces of the speakers are projected onto overhead screens. The temperature is cooled by air conditioners. Waiters circulate with water and soft drinks.

Von Schumann said it was impossible to find such a large tent on short notice in Germany, so engineers air-lifted in modules that could be pieced together. He said some of the modules came from the big tents traditionally used in Germany for Oktoberfest celebrations -- a fact that has inspired some press reports that the delegates will meet in a beer hall. But he said most of the modules come from trade shows and business conventions.

"The system of this tent is a modular system. And it could be that one part of this tent was from the Oktoberfest but [the parts] came from all over Germany because we had no time to build up an [entirely] new tent," von Schumann said.

Von Schumann said that when the emergency Loya Jirga is over, the tent will remain standing at the Polytechnic Institute as a meeting place for future political conventions and exhibitions. The air-conditioning, which was leased for the Loya Jirga, will be returned to Europe, along with most of the security equipment.

During the Loya Jirga, security at the campus will be extremely tight. Each time delegates enter the grounds, they must pass through a barrier of metal detectors and undergo body searches. And each time they enter the tent, they must go through a second barrier of metal detectors.

The first battalion of the new Afghanistan National Guard, known by its military abbreviation as 1-BANG, is responsible for security at the site. The battalion, trained by British troops, numbers some 350 men, down from an original group of 600 recruits. The soldiers, who form the nucleus of the planned national Afghan army, are drawn from all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups and are well paid by local standards. They have pledged loyalty to the interim administration and to the Transitional Authority that the Loya Jirga will approve to follow it.

Flight Lieutenant Jol Fall, an ISAF spokesman, told reporters recently that the Afghan soldiers are at the center of several rings of security forces that will protect the delegates as they meet. They aim to prevent any disruptions by remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda or other disaffected groups that oppose the Loya Jirga and what they see as foreign interference in Afghanistan. "Security is actually divided into concentric circles going outwards. So 1-BANG is right in the center. Outside of that you've got the Afghan police, the NDS, that's the National Directorate for Security, outside of that -- on the perimeters of the Loya Jirga site -- you're going to have patrols carried out by 1-Royal Anglians, O.K., that's the British forces, and all the other ISAF forces that are here, as well," Fall said.

The Loya Jirga site is considered a security challenge because it lies close to a range of high hills that various Afghan factions have previously used to shell or rocket rivals in other districts of the city. To guard against any such use in the coming week, ISAF troops have placed command posts atop the hills and are patrolling the slopes.

Inside the Loya Jirga compound, delegates will live in four- to six-man rooms in the dormitories and are permitted to leave the campus only in the evening. The some 180 women delegates live in their own dormitory and some are accompanied by their youngest child. That provision was made to allow even nursing women an opportunity to become delegates.

Many of the delegates were flown to Kabul from their regions by United Nations-chartered planes to assure that their trips were not obstructed by anyone seeking to disrupt the process.

About 1,000 delegates were elected in district elections that organizers have called mostly fair despite some reported cases of bribery and intimidation. Another some 500 delegates were appointed by the UN-assisted Special Commission of 21 prominent Afghans who organized the Loya Jirga.

The selections were intended to assure adequate representation of special-interest groups such as the business and religious communities and women. Top members of the current interim administration and regional governors are also taking part in the assembly.