KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government and the principal opposition candidate declared the country's second presidential election a success Thursday, despite strong indications that Taliban threats and attacks had kept voters at home in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The country's largest independent election-monitoring organization, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, which deployed some 7,500 observers around the country, said it would withhold judgment while it assessed reports of irregularities, violence and low turnout, however.
The reports, the organization said, "raise concerns about the quality of today's elections, and about the impact of the reported incidents of violence — some gruesome."
At least 26 people died in Election Day violence: eight Afghan soldiers, nine police officers and nine civilians, according to Defense Minister Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar.
The toll could go higher. A battle between security forces and Taliban in Baghlan province may have killed as many as 40, including the district police chief, according to Afghan and Western officials.
Afghans defied "rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote. We'll see what the turnout was, but they came out to vote. That's great. That's great," President Hamid Karzai declared at a news conference after the polls closed.
The closest of Karzai's 36 challengers, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, also seemed satisfied. He said that unrest, alleged official vote-tampering for Karzai in southern Kandahar province and very low turnout in many areas "will not be at a level that would question the legitimacy of the election."
"Whatever it (the result) is, we will accept it," he said.
An election in which the rivals agree on the result could bolster President Barack Obama's ability to cite progress as he seeks support for a new counterinsurgency strategy expected to call for more U.S. troops and tens of billions in additional funds to expand the Afghan security forces along with civilian aid and reconstruction programs.
"Lots of people have defied threats of violence and terror to express their thoughts about the next government," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in Washington. "We will await what happens and continue to monitor."
Karzai is favored to win another five-year term. However, support for Abdullah rose in the campaign's closing days, and it wasn't clear that Karzai would be able to avoid a runoff by capturing more than 50 percent of the vote.
Ballot counting began immediately after the polls closed, but preliminary results aren't expected until Saturday.
Attendance was reportedly much higher in western and northern regions than in the east and the south, where U.S.-led international troops and Afghan security forces are struggling to contain 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.
Still, the overall turnout was expected to fall far short of the 70 percent achieved in the 2004 presidential election, which Karzai won with 55.4 percent of the vote. Since then, his popularity has plummeted as the Taliban-led insurgency, civilian casualties, the foreign troop presence and drug trafficking-fueled corruption have grown.
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.
Commission Chairman Azizullah Ludin 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 ballots 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 a news conference.
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 intimidation aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the vote overshadowed the election. There were also deep concerns about fraud, driven by the distribution of millions of phony and duplicate voter registration cards and the lack of voter lists.
A Western official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said that most of the known incidents of violence had occurred before 9:30 a.m., indicating that they were aimed at suppressing voting.
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.
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 were killed, including two children.
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, 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 Zhari 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, Afghanistan'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.
Turnout in Kabul appeared to be low, driven down by recent suicide bombings, one outside the headquarters of the 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, Afghanistan's most prestigious secondary school.
Security was tight across Kabul, with police manning checkpoints on streets empty of the usual chaotic traffic and pedestrians. Officers anxious about 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 in the old city area of Shor Bazaar. "This is my soil. I haven't left the country in 30 years of war."
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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