KABUL – Afghans voted under the shadow of Taliban threats of violence today to choose their next president for a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs, corruption and a feeble government nearly eight years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Turnout, particularly in the violent south, will be key to the vote’s success – the country’s second direct presidential election. Taliban militants have pledged to disrupt the vote and circulated threats that those who cast ballots will be punished.
Early indications in Kabul pointed to a low initial turnout, perhaps as people assessed whether casting ballots was safe. An Associated Press reporter who visited six polling centers in the capital said he saw no lines at any of them.
“Yes, we are going to vote,” Abdul Rahman, 35, said as he stood 50 yards outside one polling center. He and his friends were waiting to see a line of people vote safely before casting ballots. “If anything happens to the polling center, we don’t want to be too close to it.”
President Hamid Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001, is favored to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.
Scattered reports of minor violence trickled in from around the country, including a rocket that landed near voters in Helmand and an explosion at a voting site in Kabul. Security companies in the capital reported at least five explosions.
Fearing that violence may dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry asked news organizations to avoid “broadcasting any incidence of violence” during voting hours “to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people.” Because of that order, Afghan officials were reluctant to confirm violence reports.
International officials have predicted an imperfect election but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate – a key component of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.
At a high school in eastern Kabul, election workers were ready at 7 a.m., but no one was there. A 30-year-old shopkeeper whose store is about 100 yards away said he didn’t see the point. “I am not voting. It won’t change anything in our country,” said Mohammad Tahir, 30.
An AP reporter in Kandahar, the south’s largest city and the Taliban spiritual birthplace, also said he saw few voters.
Karzai, wearing his traditional purple and green striped robe, voted at 7 a.m. He dipped a finger in indelible ink – a fraud-prevention measure – and held it up for the cameras.
“I request from the Afghan people to come out and vote so through their vote Afghanistan will be more secure, more peaceful,” Karzai said. “Vote. No violence.”
Violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan the past three years, and the U.S. now has more than 60,000 troops in the country close to eight years after the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.
Karzai, a favorite of the Bush administration, won in 2004 with 55.4 percent of the vote, riding into office on a wave of public optimism after decades of war and ruinous Taliban rule. As the U.S. shifted resources to the war in Iraq, Afghanistan fell into steep decline, marked by record opium poppy harvests, deepening government corruption and skyrocketing violence.
Faced with growing public discontent, Karzai has sought to ensure his re-election by striking alliances with regional power brokers, naming as a running mate a Tajik strongman whom he once fired as defense minister and welcoming home notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, allegedly responsible in the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war.
The country has been rife with rumors of ballot stuffing, bogus registrations and trafficking in registration cards on behalf of the incumbent, allegations his campaign has denied.
“It’s very difficult in Afghanistan to see perfect elections,” Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy, said during a news conference in Pakistan on Wednesday. “Nowhere in the world (is there) a perfect election. Don’t expect perfect elections in Afghanistan.”