KABUL, Afghanistan — Threats of violence and scattered Taliban attacks appeared to have suppressed voter turnout Thursday in eastern and southern areas of the country during Afghanistan's second presidential election, officials and residents said.
Attendance was reportedly much higher in western and northern regions of Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S.-led international troops and Afghan security forces are struggling to contain the insurgency by the Taliban and allied Islamic extremist groups nearly eight years after the U.S.-led invasion in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The polls were to have closed at 4 p.m. after nine hours of voting, but the Independent Election Commission decided to extend that by an hour. Ballot counting began immediately, but preliminary results weren't expected until Saturday.
President Hamid Karzai was favored to win a second five-year term. However, support for the closest of his 36 challengers, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, had risen in the campaign's closing days. Diplomats and analysts said it wasn't clear whether Karzai would get the more than 50 percent of votes necessary to avoid a runoff.
Karzai held a nationally televised news conference after the polls closed to thank voters for defying Taliban intimidation and the scattered unrest to cast ballots.
"We will see what the turnout was, but they came out and voted. That's great. That's great," he said.
At a separate news conference, Defense Minister Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said that eight Afghan soldiers, nine police officers and eight civilians had died in Election Day violence.
Azizullah Ludin, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, said that 95 percent of the 6,185 polling centers had opened. He said he had no reports of major security or voting problems, but added that there were too few ballot papers delivered to some voting stations.
Ludin scoffed at charges by Ramazan Bashardost, a presidential candidate and former planning minister, that the indelible ink used to mark people's fingers to ensure that they didn't vote more than once could be washed off easily.
"I would give a prize if anyone appears and claims that he was able to rub off the ink," Ludin told another news conference.
"The power of the people is in their vote, and they are using it enthusiastically," he said.
In the ragged tent he uses as an office, Bashardost and several aides held up fingers from which the ink had washed off, however. Bashardost also produced a complaint endorsed by a member of the Election Complaints Commission after the ink on his finger rubbed away.
"This is not an election. This is a comedy," said Bashardost, whom pre-election polls had put in third place. He blamed the snafu on Karzai.
A Taliban campaign of bombings and voter intimidation aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the vote overshadowed the election. There were also deep concerns over fraud, driven by the distribution of millions of phony and duplicate voter registration cards and the lack of voter lists.
The United States, its allies and Afghan officials, anxious to show progress amid rising casualties and growing opposition to the war in many troop-contributing nations, were hoping that violence and irregularities would be low enough and turnout high enough that the losers and most Afghans would accept the results.
A very low turnout — especially in the southern heartland of the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group — or allegations of serious irregularities could undermine the election's legitimacy, fueling instability and complicating the Obama administration's quest to end the war.
"Afghanistan starts to look like a sucking chest wound," said a Western official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, as the official wasn't authorized to speak for attribution.
A second Western official, who asked not to be identified for the same reason, said that most of the known incidents of violence had occurred before 9:30 a.m., indicating that they were aimed at suppressing the vote.
The worst violence Thursday was reported in northern Baghlan province, where a large number of people were killed in the town of Baghlan-e-Jadid in a three-hour battle between security forces and insurgents who tried to block the main road to prevent polling, Afghan and Western officials said.
Helaluddin Helal, a parliamentarian from Baghlan, said the district police chief was among the dead and that up to 40 Taliban had been killed.
Elsewhere, insurgents launched rockets and mortars into Kandahar, the largest city in the Taliban's southern heartland, and Lashkar Gah, the capital of the neighboring opium-producing province of Helmand, where thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops are deployed, residents and Afghan and Western officials said.
"At 10 this morning, there was a rocket attack. So far, six to seven rockets have been fired," Haji Jan Mohammad, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, said by telephone from Lashkar Gah. He said that at least three people, including two children, were killed.
He estimated that voter turnout was below 20 percent in the city, which is more secure than the rest of the insurgency-racked province.
Mohammad Nabi, the deputy police chief in southeastern Uruzgan province, said that he thought that province-wide turnout was less than 40 percent.
"People had no interest" in the election "although security was ensured," he said, adding that the Taliban had fired at least seven rockets at the provincial capital of Tirin Kot but that only one landed in the city and it caused no casualties.
Noor Ahmad, a resident of Zerai District, in Kandahar province, said by telephone that his relatives told him "there has been no election" in the area because the Taliban had blocked the roads.
Ahmad, who was speaking from Kandahar city, said the Taliban had exchanged fire with security forces in the city and that "except for two or three children, you don't see anyone in the street. The turnout is very low, perhaps less than 5 percent."
Several bombings were reported in Kabul, the country's capital, and police said that officers had killed two Taliban suicide bombers in an hourlong gunfight outside a police station in the southeast neighborhood of Karte Nau.
Attendance at polling stations in Kabul appeared to be low, driven down by suicide bombings in recent days, one outside the headquarters of the 100,000-strong U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force and the other against an ISAF convoy.
"The turnout is very low. Naturally, the reason is the explosions a few days ago," said Mohammad Wazir, who was in charge of the polling station at Habibia High School, the nation's most prestigious secondary school.
Security was tight across Kabul, with rifle-toting police manning checkpoints every few hundred yards on streets empty of the usual chaotic traffic and pedestrians. Officers anxious over the threat of suicide attacks frisked drivers and passengers. Most shops and businesses were shut.
Not everyone was deterred from voting, however.
"Why should I be afraid?" Abdul Ahmad, a 48-year-old laborer, said after he voted at the Ashqan Wa Arifan Intermediate School in the old city area of Shor Bazaar. "This is my soil. I haven't left the country in 30 years of war."
Maryam Noori, her 5-year-old daughter, Spozhmai, in tow, was the first woman to show up to vote — 90 minutes after the polls opened — at a voting center in the Herati Mosque in the central Shar-i-Nau commercial district.
The 36-year-old housewife, a green scarf draped over her hair, said she wasn't scared. "We want peace and security, and want our children to have a good life," she said.
Voting appeared to be brisk in villages north of the city on the Shomali Plain, an agricultural center dominated by Tajiks, the second-largest ethnic group and strong opponents of the Taliban, who are almost all Pashtuns.
"This election is going to determine the future of the country. So why should I be scared?" Ali Jasin, a 50-year-old farmer, said after he voted in Istalif, a sleepy town of dry mud compounds that's known for its colorful pottery. "In our town there is no fear, and everybody is going to vote."
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks