Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats to cast their ballot in the country's second-ever presidential election yesterday but the turnout looked to be well down on the poll that brought Hamid Karzai to power, hinting at turbulence when initial results are announced in a few days time.
The Associated Press reported that only 40-50 per cent of Afghanistan's 15 million registered voters had cast ballots, compared to 70 per cent in 2004. But Mr Karzai brushed aside such concerns and praised Afghans for having the courage to take part in the democratic process.
"The Afghan people braved rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote," he said after the polls closed. "We'll see what the turnout was, but they came out to vote. That is great."
Earlier in the day, the incumbent cast his ballot at a Kabul high school. Dressed in his traditional purple and green-striped robe, he dipped his index finger into indelible ink – used to prevent people voting twice – and held his hand aloft for the cameras. Heading into yesterday's vote, opinion polls gave him 44 per cent of the vote, almost 20 points ahead of his nearest rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah but not more than the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off.
Barack Obama has made Afghan-istan his war, boosting the number of US troops to more than 60,000 in a bid to decisively crush the Taliban, and after the polls closed he commented: "We had what appears to be a successful election in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban's efforts to disrupt it." His envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, toured polling stations in the capital Kabul and declared: "So far every prediction of disaster has turned out to be wrong."
Afghan electoral officials said 6,192 polling stations had opened from the mountains of the north to the poppy fields of the south, about 94 per cent of the planned total. The government said nine civilians and 14 members of the security forces had been killed in a total of 135 incidents across the country on polling day. Voting was extended for an hour to compensate for some temporary security closures.
In Lashkar Gah, the capital of the volatile southern province of Helmand, the polls had been open less than 20 minutes when the first Taliban rocket hit. Just metres from the edge of a football field where election officials were still waiting for their first voter, the young boy lay dying.
This first casualty of the militants' campaign to disrupt the polls was too young even to vote, but he had been cycling past a polling station with his brother when the rocket struck. Miraculously, his sibling was unscathed – but inconsolable. He staggered around a pool of blood, shell-shocked and screaming, as medics heaved his brother's lifeless body into the back of an ambulance. The sound of sirens had barely faded and police were still hosing down the road when Helmand's governor, Gulab Mangal, arrived to cast his vote.
However, turnout in this southern Pashtun belt, the focal point of the country's worsening war where the Taliban have been particularly active in threatening retribution on those taking part in the polls, was thought to have been particularly hard hit. Voter numbers were said to be 40 per cent lower than five years ago. There was also a downturn in attendance in the eastern part of the country which had voted solidly for Mr Karzai last time around, with some observers estimating his support there had shrunk to about 30 per cent.
Turnout, however, was reported to be relatively high in the northern Tajik areas where Mr Abdullah has his power base, increasing the possibility that the President would be forced into a second round in October, and Afghanistan might face an uncertain and insecure few weeks.
Mr Abdullah's supporters have warned that there will be "Tehran-style" disturbances if Mr Karzai is declared the outright winner with the required 50 per cent of the votes in the first round and there is evidence of electoral malpractice. In Helmand, The Independent witnessed ballot-stuffing, children voting and election officials tallying votes for Mr Karzai without so much as glancing at the ballot papers. There were also concerns about the proportion of women that were actually able to vote yesterday because of a shortage of female election officials in this deeply conservative country. It was perhaps to counter those fears that presidential aides released a rare photo of Mr Karzai's wife casting her vote, and Mr Abdullah, hailing a "a day of change", voted alongside his spouse.
Foreshadowing Washington's official assessment, General David Petraeus, the US Central Commander, said polling day had gone "reasonably well". "The vast majority of the Afghan population did have the opportunity to cast their ballot," he told reporters in London after speaking to General Stanley McCrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan. Turnout was slow in Kabul and the south, he conceded, but it had built during the day. General Petraeus, who led the US surge in Iraq, said once the Afghan poll results were announced, the controversial policy of "talking to the Taliban" could begin to be implemented.
"You cannot kill or capture your way out of an insurgency," said General Petraeus. "In Iraq what we did was, through tribal leaders, get [insurgents] to realise that their future lay in being part of the new Iraq. As the new [Afghan] government gets settled... they will see how to pursue reconciliation at a local level. You have to identify the reconcilables and try to reintegrate them and then unfortunately you do have kill, capture or run off the irreconcilables."