KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2009 — -- 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.
But election officials suggested that Taliban threats in the days before the electioncaused 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.
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."
Karzai is expected to win, although he may not receive enough votes to avoid a second-round run-off, tentatively scheduled for early October.
One of his main challengers, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, accused the Karzai campaign of trying to rig the vote.
"The fraud in Kandahar has been confirmed by other reliable sources too now," Ghani wrote on his Twitter feed. "The boxes will come full for Karzai."
He also wrote, "Warlords in north, northeast, south and southeast force people at gun point to vote for either Abdullah Abdullah or Hamid Karzai," a reference to Karzai's chief competitor, former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
One of Karzai's other competitors alleged widespread fraud. Ramazan Bashardost showed a group of assembled reporters how easily he rubbed off the polling ink into which he had just dipped his finger. Later, election officials said ink rubbing off was caused by workers not shaking the ink beforehand and that it was not a widespread problem.
"This vote, it is not transparency, it is not free, it is not ink," Bashardost said, holding up his clean finger. He requested that the election immediately be halted.
U.S. and Afghan officials have been hoping for a smooth election to provide some momentum toward stability in Afghanistan. This has been the deadliest year for both troops and civilians since the war began. Today one U.S. soldier died in eastern Afghanistan, according to the U.S. military, bringing the total number of troops killed since July 1 to nearly 80.
More than 20,000 troops have flooded into southern Afghanistan, the first time that the U.S. has thrown significant resources into the Taliban heartland. The challenges they face were apparent even today, when a group of marines delivered ballots at 12:30 p.m. this afternoon to a town deep inside Helmand.
The Taliban had largely controlled the town until recently, but even with the marine presence, villagers were not willing to vote, according to The Associated Press reporter embedded with them. They feared that the Taliban would kill anyone who they discovered had voted.
For Afghan voters, fear was greatest across the south. Turnout was very low in the morning, officials said, though it improved slightly in the afternoon.
In Kandahar City, Ahmedullah, an election worker, told the AP that "weak security" and "failure of previous governments" caused low turnout. The polling center where he worked was empty most of the day.
"The Taliban pasted warning letters everywhere in the city, and they said if anyone comes out to vote they will be punished," Mohammad Asif told the AP. "The situation in the city is very bad."
Before the election Karzai's campaign feared that as many as 40 percent of all ethnic Pashtuns, who dominate southern Afghanistan, would not be allowed to vote. Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun and won more than three quarters of the Pashtun vote during the 2004 election.
If turnout proves particularly low in the south, Karzai would have the most to lose.
Karzai's government, in an attempt to boost turnout, demanded that journalists not report on violence during voting hours. If they did, the foreign ministry warned, foreign journalists would be immediately expelled.
There is no evidence that any expulsions took place. But some journalists who visited the scene of the Kabul gunfight were roughed up by police. At least one of them was arrested, and at least one camera was confiscated, the journalists said.
Election workers are not counting ballots. They will not release preliminary results until Sept. 3, though initial reports will begin surfacing as early as this weekend.