A roadside bomb killed two policemen and wounded two others in the
southern city of Qalat as they were returning from a polling
station, while four voters were wounded in an explosion at a voting
centre in the southeastern province of Logar.
There were no reports of more serious attacks on an election that
Taliban insurgents had vowed to derail, branding it a U.S.-backed
sham, and many voters said they were determined to make their voices
heard despite the threats.
"I am here to vote and I am not afraid of any attacks," said Haji
Ramazan as he stood in line at a polling station in rain-drenched
Kabul. "This is my right, and no one can stop me."
The United States, having spent $90 billion on aid and training for
Afghan security forces since it helped vanquish the Taliban in 2001,
could point to its success promoting democracy as a major step
towards leaving a more stable country.
But the abiding Taliban threat and uncertainty over neighbor
Pakistan's intentions leave the worry that Afghanistan could enter a
fresh cycle of violence, and once again become a haven for groups
like al Qaeda, after the bulk of U.S. troops leave by the year-end.
Most people expect the election will be better run than the chaotic
2009 vote that handed the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, a second
term amid massive fraud and ballot stuffing.
The stronger the next president's mandate, the less vulnerable
Afghanistan could be to instability. One major concern is that it
could take several months for a winner to be declared at a time when
the country desperately needs a leader to stem rising violence as
foreign troops prepare to leave.
KABUL SEALED OFF
About 12 million are eligible to vote in the election, and there are
eight candidates, with former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah
and Zalmay Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani the
Karzai is barred by the constitution from running for the presidency
again. But, after 12 years in power, he is widely expected to retain
influence through politicians loyal to him.
The Taliban warned civilians ahead of the election they would be
targeted if they try to vote, and dozens died in a spate of attacks
in the preceding weeks.
A veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and a senior
correspondent of the same news agency was wounded on Friday when a
policeman opened fire on the two women in eastern Afghanistan as
they reported on preparations for the poll.
"The people of Afghanistan must answer the enemy's violence by using
their vote. By casting your vote you reject fighting and confirm the
peace," Interior Minister Umer Daudzai said on Twitter as the
More than 350,000 Afghan troops were deployed, guarding against
attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital, Kabul, was
sealed off by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.
In the city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban insurgency, the mood
was tense. Vehicles were not allowed to move on the roads and
checkpoints were set up at every intersection.
Hamida, a 20-year-old teacher working at a Kandahar polling station,
said more than a dozen women turned up in the first two hours of
voting and added that she expected more to come despite the threat
of an attack by the Taliban.
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"We are trying not to think about it," she said, only her
honey-brown eyes visible through her black niqab.
Raising questions about the legitimacy of the vote even before it
began, the election commission announced that at least 10 percent of
polling stations were expected to be shut due to security threats,
and most foreign observers left Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly
attack on a hotel in Kabul last month.
In some areas of the
country voters complained on Saturday that polling stations had run
out of ballot papers. The interior ministry said six officials — including an intelligence agent — were detained for trying to rig
the vote, and elsewhere several people were arrested for trying to
use fake voter cards.
RISK OF DELAY
If none of the candidates wins over 50 percent of Saturday's vote,
the two frontrunners would go into a run-off on May 28, spinning out
the process into the holy month of Ramadan when life slows to a
A long delay would leave little time to complete a pact between
Kabul and Washington to keep up to 10,000 U.S. troops in the country
beyond 2014, after the bulk of the American force, which currently
stands at around 23,500, has pulled out.
Karzai has rejected the pact, but the three frontrunners have
pledged to sign it. Without the pact, far weaker Afghan forces would
be left on their own to fight the Taliban.
Uncertainty over the outcome could also stall crucial foreign aid
and economic reform, foment ethnic tensions and leave a political
vacuum in which the Taliban could gain ground.
The election is a landmark after 13 years of struggle that has
killed at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands more soldiers.
Nearly 3,500 members of the U.S.-led coalition force have died since
deployment in the country over a decade ago.
Karzai's relations with the United States became increasingly
strained in recent years as Afghan casualties mounted, and he voiced
frustrated that Washington was not putting enough pressure on
Pakistan to stop the Taliban, who base themselves in borderlands.
Although his departure marks a turning point, none of his would-be
successors would bring radical change, diplomats say.
"Whether the election will be the great transformative event that
everybody expects is, I think, delusional." Sarah Chayes, a South
Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told a
media briefing on the eve of the vote.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul;
writing by John
Chalmers; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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