The new charter, designed to set the stage for presidential elections next summer, caps a two-year U.S.-sponsored drive to put the impoverished country back on its feet after more than two decades of war.
But delegates to loya jirga, or grand council, appear deeply divided over the nature of the new charter being debated under a huge tent on a Kabul college campus. Security is uppermost in many minds, given the threat of violence from Muslim fundamentalist fighters of the ousted Taliban regime.
The 500 delegates, including 100 women, drawn from across the ethnically divided country have come together to debate the draft constitution put forward by the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The draft calls for a moderate Islamic state dominated by a strong presidency, and has drawn criticism from Islamic hard-liners who want a basic law that is based on Islamic law. Liberals are pushing for Western-style guarantees of human rights, including those of women.
"There are differences on human rights," said Sidiq Aliyar, a delegate from the central province of Bamiyan. "These religious people say some articles are not in accordance with Islamic law. Some of the women are worried."
Abdul Raouf Mukhlis, a delegate from Herat in the far west, complained there is no mention of Islamic law, or Sharia.
"The word 'Sharia' should be added" in the constitution's second article, which enshrines Islam as the official religion, he told The Associated Press by telephone during a break in the closed-door proceedings.
The delegates divided into 10 groups Thursday to debate the draft article by article. But the mood was sour after a woman delegate decried the awarding of leadership roles to several powerful warlords.
The United Nations gave Malalai Joya, from western Farah province, armed guards after she denounced as "criminals" faction leaders like former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a deeply conservative Islamist.
Both men command respect for their role in the resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. But they also were participants in the ruinous civil war that followed.
Delegates said Friday that Joya was spending her nights away from her quarters on the campus and was escorted to the jirga tent by U.N. security guards.
Rights groups worry that references in the draft to citizens' rights could be overridden if Islamic conservatives control the legislature or the supreme court.
Western observers also are concerned that moderates and independents are outnumbered by those loyal to Muslim fundamentalist warlords. The election of delegates was marred by alleged intimidation and vote-buying.
Given fears of fundamentalist dominance, "it would be a success if the current draft emerges intact," said Almut Wieland-Karimi of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German political think tank that sponsors young Afghan democrats. "The current text is already liberal if you consider who is taking part."
Since it was consolidated in the 1700s, Afghanistan has never had a democratic government. It was ruled by monarchs — almost exclusively from the Pashtun tribe — for most of its history, although the last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, did introduce a partially elected national assembly in 1964 reforms.
Nine years later, however, the monarchy was overthrown, but the republican government set up in its place soon collapsed.
In 1978, a Marxist rebellion took power, follow the next year by the Soviet invasion and ten years of occupation.
When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a brief period of peace was shattered by civil war among several factions, including the Taliban.
In December 2001, as the Taliban lost power under a U.S. attack, Afghan delegates meeting in Germany agreed to install an interim government with Hamid Karzai as its head, pending elections under the new constitution.