Afghans Exhale As Voting Winds Down

Millions of Afghans braved a Taliban campaign of intimidation to vote today in the country's second-ever presidential election, but fears of violence appear to have significantly depressed turnout.

The Taliban followed through with their promise to try to disrupt the election, launching 73 attacks across the country that killed 26, according to President Hamid Karzai.

No single attack was as serious as many Afghans had feared, and by the end of the day there was a palpable sense of relief on the streets of Kabul that voting day had passed without a catastrophic incident.

VIDEO: Taliban threats continue as voters head to the ballot box to pick a president.
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But election officials suggested that Taliban threats in the days before the election caused the turnout to fall well below that of the 2004 presidential election.

In many ways that drop is a reflection of the deterioration in Afghanistan since 2004. Security is significantly worse today than it was five years ago; most Afghans do not say their lives have improved; and for the first time, a majority of Afghans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. For Afghanistan's next president, the low turnout could cause his opponents to question the legitimacy of his victory.

VIDEO: Will Afghans heading to the polls be safe?
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But for the millions who did travel to one of 6,200 polling stations today, voting was an act of defiance. The Taliban has threatened to kill or cut the hands off of anyone who cast a ballot, but one voter shrugged.

"I am proud I have voted," said 27-year-old Ahmed, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. He cast his ballot in downtown Kabul in a mosque turned into a polling station. "If the Taliban cut off my finger or my neck, I have done my job. Whatever happens, happens."

The Taliban's most brazen attack appears to have been thwarted by Kabul police, who had set up so many checkpoints that it was impossible to drive more than a few minutes in Kabul without being stopped. Three suicide bombers battled with police. Two of the bombers were killed, police said; the third was later captured.

Many of the Taliban attacks, especially in the south, where their ranks are strongest, came from crude rockets. At one point in Helmand, according to people living there, rockets were falling every 45 minutes. One of their victims was too young to even vote: a 9-year-old girl.

But attacks were not limited to the south. In the usually quiet northern province of Baghlan, Taliban militants launched a major assault and battled police for hours, according to local residents. At least eight were killed there, closing polls for most of the day.

U.S., Afghan and U.N. officials all argued that the violence was not nearly as bad as it could have been. And, as were the Afghans, diplomats seemed relieved that the election finished relatively peacefully. International troops, providing the third ring of security behind Afghan police and soldiers, were never called.

"So far, every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told reporters this afternoon.

"The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote," Karzai told a news conference after polls closed. Earlier in the day he had voted at a heavily fortified polling station right next to his presidential palace. "We'll see what the turnout was. But they came out to vote. That's great, that's great."

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