Afghans vote despite threats

The election to replace President Karzai draws

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MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -- This war-torn nation passed the first major test of its impending post-American era on Saturday with an election that featured a robust turnout, minimal violence and some reports of cheating as voters began the process of selecting a successor to Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president for the past 13 years.

Next comes the counting of roughly 7 million ballots nationwide and the investigation of hundreds of claims of irregularities -- from the serious to the superficial. The process is likely to take several weeks and none of the three presidential front-runners is expected to win an absolute majority, which would mean a runoff vote between the top two no earlier than the end of May.

Still, voters stared down Taliban death threats and lingering memories of past fraud-scarred elections, trekking through the deserted streets of Kabul and rain-swept fields in the provinces to polling places guarded by 195,000 Afghan soldiers and police. Some voters quietly left Taliban-controlled villages to cast ballots in the safety of cities and towns. Others waited in long lines under wet skies at schools and mosques. Still some had to wait even longer when many polling places ran out of ballots and had to be resupplied.

By day's end, officials said voter turnout had far surpassed the 4.6 million of the 2009 presidential election, and approached that of the first election after the fall of the Taliban in 2004. Barely one-third of the voters were women, owing to Afghanistan's conservative society as well as fears of Taliban attacks.

But after a series of high-profile Taliban assaults in recent weeks aimed at derailing the polling, violence Saturday was relatively limited. Four civilians and 16 Afghan security personnel were reported killed nationwide. The Taliban had denounced the elections as a U.S.-sponsored plot.

"We showed the world we are a democracy," Mr. Karzai said in an evening address to the nation.

Prior to the election, U.S. officials publicly said little but privately described the vote as a barometer for the direction Afghanistan will take after most of the remaining 33,000 American troops withdraw by year's end.

In congratulating Afghanistan on the election, U.S. President Barack Obama said it represented "another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces."

"These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as continued international support, and we look to the Afghan electoral bodies to carry out their duties in the coming weeks," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

The U.N. Security Council issued a press statement commending "the courage of the Afghan people to cast their ballot despite the threat and intimidation by the Taliban and other extremist and terrorist groups."

In general, there do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among the front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah, Mr. Karzai's top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. A runoff is widely expected since none is likely to get the majority needed for an outright victory.

All eight also preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security, while they do differ on other issues such as the country's border dispute with Pakistan.

International combat troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, leaving Afghan security forces -- not completely battle-tested and plagued with insurgents even among their ranks -- to fight alone against what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taliban to regain power.

A security agreement with the United States would allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country to continue training security forces after 2014. Mr. Karzai -- perhaps trying to shake off his image as a creation of the Americans -- has refused to sign it, but all eight presidential candidates say they will.

For a sizable number of rural Afghans, however, the election didn't take place at all: Officials did not open 956 out of a planned 7,168 polling stations because they were located in areas that soldiers and police couldn't secure. There were also reports from several other areas that ballot papers weren't delivered to some unsafe districts or that many voters, particularly women, stayed home out of fear.

In outlying parts of Wardak province, just west of Kabul, the Taliban circulated letters for weeks warning that anyone who participated would be punished or killed. So the night before the vote, 52-year-old Sher Agha drove to the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr, where government security forces patrol the streets.

Early Saturday morning, draped in a mustard-colored shawl to ward off the chill and spitting rain, the tall farmer cast his ballot at the provincial government compound that served as the main polling center in Maidan Shahr, a mountain-ringed town one hour's drive from Kabul.

"People should be proud to vote," he said. "But where I live, people are afraid they might be killed if they vote."

As in past elections, voters had their forefingers dipped in indelible ink to guard against multiple vote-casting. The mark could draw the attention of the Taliban, but many, like Sher Agha, decided it was worth the risk.

Low turnout and little official oversight of the balloting in rural areas could open the door for vote-rigging allegations, as in 2009, because of the ability of political partisans to buy off election staff and security forces. One such effort was exposed when the Afghan interior ministry announced that it had arrested two police and intelligence officers for stuffing five ballot boxes in Sayedabad, one of Wardak's most troubled districts.

Voters were also selecting members of elected advisory boards known as provincial councils. By 11 a.m., four hours after polls opened, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, the government-appointed election watchdog, said it had received about 200 complaints. They ranged from voting stations that opened late to reports that candidates or authorities had interfered with voting in the provinces, said the commission's spokesman, Nader Mohseni.

On Saturday, the excitement over choosing a new leader appeared to overwhelm the fear of bloodshed in many areas.

Mr. Karzai cast his ballot at a high school near the presidential palace.

"Today for us, the people of Afghanistan, is a very vital day that will determine our national future," he said, his finger stained with the indelible ink being used to prevent people from voting twice.

Mr. Karzai has been heavily criticized for failing to end the endemic poverty or clean up the government in a country that Transparency International last year ranked among the three most corrupt in the world, alongside Somalia and North Korea.

And the country is so unstable that the very fact that elections are being held is touted as a success. The Taliban retain significant support, particularly among ethnic Pashtuns and Afghans in the southern provinces where the movement originated. The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit international development organization, found last year that a third of Afghans, mostly Pashtuns and people living in rural areas, had sympathy for the Taliban and other armed opposition groups -- despite U.N. findings that Taliban attacks are responsible for the most civilian casualties.

The Associated Press contributed.

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