Afghans defy Taliban threat to vote
Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats and rain to vote in crucial elections.
It underscored their enormous expectations from elections that come as the country's government prepares to face down a ferocious insurgency largely on its own.
Combat forces from the US-led coalition are winding down a 13-year presence and the mercurial Hamid Karzai is stepping aside.
It means the country's new leader will find an altered landscape as he replaces the only president Afghans have known since the Taliban were ousted in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
But for some progress, particularly with women's rights, the country's situation is inauspicious, especially with its poor security and battered economy.
Yet despite spiralling carnage and grave disappointments, Afghans by the millions crowded mosque courtyards and queued up at schools to vote yesterday, telling a war-weary world they want their voices heard.
Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.
"I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote," she said.
"I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election."
Partial results could come as early as today, but final results were not expected for a week or more.
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 US 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.
In congratulating Afghanistan on the election, US 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."
The UN Security Council praised "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.
They are Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai's main rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister.
A run-off 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.
The run-up to the election was troubling. The Islamic radicals of the Taliban, reviled by many but still popular in some areas, view the entire enterprise as the work of outsiders and infidels, and they vowed to disrupt it by targeting polling stations and election workers.
To drive home the threat, insurgents in recent weeks stepped up shootings and bombings in the heart of Kabul to show they are capable of striking even in highly secured areas.
A restaurant popular with foreigners and one of the capital's main hotels were hit, killing many. Suicide bombers struck relentlessly.
On Friday, veteran Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and AP reporter Kathy Gannon was wounded when a local policeman opened fire as they sat in their car on the outskirts of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan.
The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots - apparent victims of an "insider attack" in which the very people tasked with protection turn out to be insurgents.
Yesterday, the excitement over choosing a new leader appeared to overwhelm the fear of bloodshed in many areas.
Mr Karzai cast his ballot at a 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 criticised 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 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.
That was despite UN findings that Taliban attacks are responsible for the most civilian casualties.
Yesterday dozens of planned polling stations did not open because of rocket and gunfire attacks.
A bomb exploded in a school packed with voters in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province, wounding two men, one seriously.
Afghan interior minister Mohammad Umar Daudzai said 20 people - 16 Afghan security forces and four civilians - were killed in 140 attacks or attempted attacks over 24 hours. But the feared a wide-scale disruption did not materialise.
The turnout was so high that some polling stations ran out of ballots, one of the main points of criticism to emerge from an otherwise relatively smooth process.
They also extended voting by an hour, to accommodate those still queuing.
Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani said estimates showed more than 7 million ballots were cast, although he warned that was based on preliminary information. He said that in all, 6,218 polling stations opened.
It was a stark difference from the last presidential elections in 2009. Widespread allegations of fraud marred the vote and led to a third of the ballots for Mr Karzai being disqualified, depriving him of the majority needed to avoid a run-off.
His nearest rival, Mr Abdullah, quit before a second round could be held, saying he did not believe it would be fair either.
"We slapped the face of Afghanistan's enemy, which claims Afghanistan is not ready for democracy. We proved that we are accepting democracy as a process," said Shukria Barekzai, one of nearly 70 female MPs in the 249-seat parliament.
"Today were the real elections, because nobody knows who will be the next president."
Mr Karzai, the only president the country has known since the Islamic movement was ousted, is constitutionally barred from a third term.
In addition to the presidential ballot, voters selected provincial council members.