KABUL, Afghanistan — Protected by tens of thousands of U.S.-led international troops and Afghan security forces, Afghans voted Thursday for a new president for only the second time in their history in an election held under the threat of vote-rigging and the Taliban's vow to attack polling stations.
President Hamid Karzai was favored to win a second five-year term, although diplomats and analysts said it wasn't clear if he'd get the more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Preliminary results showing a clear trend weren't expected for several days.
Security was rigid across Kabul, with rifle-toting police manning numerous checkpoints on streets empty of the usual daily chaotic mess of fume-spewing cars and buses. Officers anxious over the threat of suicide attacks frisked drivers and passengers. Most shops and businesses were shut.
The early turnout appeared to be slow and marred by controversy.
One leading candidate, former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost, urged his supporters to boycott the election after he claimed that the ink used to stay the fingers of people who had voted was easily washed off. A campaign aide said Bashardost discovered that the ink wasn't indelible 30 minutes after voting.
"We bought liquid detergent and scurbbed our fingers with it," the aide, Rahimullah, said. Bashardost filed a complaint with the country's election commission.
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, her hair drapped by a green scarf, said she was not scarred.
"We want peace and security and want our children to have a good life," she said. "Everyone should have a good future."
"Why should I be afraid?" said Abdul Ahmad, 48, a laborer, 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."
Abdul Wahid Achakzai, the chief lower court judge in war-striken southern Uruzgan Province, said in a telephone interview that few people would vote there, fearful of Taliban reprisals.
"I believe that the turnout in the entire province will be about 10 percent," he said. "Most people are illiterate. There is the Taliban threat and some people are simply not interested because they are disappointed that the government has done nothing for them."
Tolo TV, the country's largest commercial channel, said there were no immediate reports of incidents.
Tolo said the Taliban distributed "night letters" late Wednesday in eastern Khost Province, bordering Pakistan's tribal area, warning people against voting.
Desperate to demonstrate progress after eight years of war amid surging casualties and flagging popular support, the Afghan government, the U.S. and its allies hope that the turnout is high enough and bloodshed and fraud low enough that the losers and most Afghans accept the result.
"We don't say free and fair elections. We say credible," said a senior Western diplomat who requested anonymity to speak bluntly. "In order to be credible, it should be that whoever is elected is the one the Afghans want."
Underscoring the deep anxiety over turnout, the government on Wednesday said it would shut down Afghan media outlets and expel foreign correspondents if they reported any violence during the nine hours of voting that began at 7 a.m.
"If anybody broadcasts or gives news of movements or activities of terrorists, domestic media offices will be closed and foreigners kicked out of the country," said the directive to news organizations read by spokesmen of President Hamid Karzai's government.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the Obama administration had "expressed our concern and displeasure about that policy and believe that journalists should have the freedom of access."
An extremely low turnout, especially in the war-ravaged southern heartland of the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, or allegations of serious irregularities could undermine the legitimacy of the results, fueling instability and complicating the Obama administration's quest to end the war.
"Afghanistan starts to look like a sucking chest wound," said a second Western official who was not authorized to speak for attribution.
Karzai's re-election bid has been boosted by alliances he has forged with notorious ethnic warlords, many of them implicated in war crimes, human rights abuses and corruption, who have promised to deliver large ethnic vote blocs in return for positions in the next government. Karzai, a Pashtun, is banking on votes from the Pashtun-dominated south.
"Karzai has spent months trying to exploit traditional ties and allegiances by buying bloc votes from ex-warlords, local leaders and powerbrokers," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as an adviser to U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S.-led international forces, in an e-mail. He has "done everything possible to buy the election long before the vote will actually occur."
Recent polls have raised questions of whether Karzai can avoid a runoff. His former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, is considered Karzai's closest rival among a field of 37 candidates. They're followed by former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost, a colorful populist who rails against corruption, and former finance minister Ahsraf Ghani.
Western officials and experts said the fact that the Afghans themselves have organized the election — the United Nations and international troops organized the 2004 and 2005 elections — in a short amount of time and the enthusiasm it generated are successes in themselves.
The candidates have held rallies around the country without major incident and clashed in several lively televised debates in which Karzai has deftly handled criticism of the bloodshed, graft and incompetence that have sullied his first term, hurting his popularity and angering the country's foreign backers.
Abdullah, a former aide to legendary guerrilla leader Ahmand Shah Massoud, suffers from a perception that he's a minority Tajik even though his father was Pashtun.
Voters will also elect 34 provincial assemblies.
Afghan officials said that polling can't be held in nine of the 364 administrative districts because they're under Taliban control, a figure that some experts say is too low. The Interior Ministry said about a third of the landlocked country of some 32 million, slightly smaller than Texas and one of the poorest in the world, is susceptible to terrorist attacks.
At least five U.S. soldiers and a half dozen election workers were reported killed Wednesday in bombings and ambushes around the country. In Kabul, hit by two suicide bombings in recent days, three gunmen died in an hour-long battle inside a bank building with police commandos. It was unclear if the attackers were Taliban.
"I believe that the turnout will be 20 to 30 percent, and I don't believe this election will be legitimate and transparent when a majority of people are deprived of their right to vote," Haji Abdul Zahir Arian, a Ministry of Rural Development advisor in war-torn southern Helmand Province, said in a telephone interview.
Some Afghan and Western officials have played down the threat, pointing out that the Taliban lacks the strength to stage widespread attacks and refrained from disrupting elections in 2004 and 2005.
There are deep concerns over fraud. They are being drive by a decision to allow local power barons to use private militias to secure polling places amid a shortage of police, the misuse of official vehicles and other assets for candidates' campaigns, the distribution of millions of fake and duplicate voter cards and the lack of registration lists.
Senior Afghan officials said that they have been negotiating ceasefires with local Taliban commanders to permit voters to cast ballots. But some experts fear the truces may be used to allow local powerbrokers to rig the vote in their area for Karzai. The government denies the allegation.
There are 17.5 million people registered to vote, but most experts agree that no one knows the real number, especially for women. Most women are prevented from leaving home by ultra-conservative traditions, especially in the Pashtun south. In many areas, election officials issued registration cards to tribal elders bearing lists of women's names without checking whether the women really existed.
The problems raise the potential that local warlords could intimidate election officials into turning their backs while fake ballots, corresponding to registries of fake and duplicate registration cards, are stuffed into ballot boxes.
Afghan and Western election officials insist that there are sufficient safeguards, such as marking voters' fingers with indelible ink, to avert significant irregularities.
"There will be hanky panky, but you have ways to detect that," a second Western diplomat said.
The election is being help as McCrystal finalizes a plan to implement President Barack Obama's strategy to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing a hard-line Islamic state in which al Qaida would find refuge.
Obama, however, is also pursuing an ambitious domestic agenda, and a review of whether progress is being made in Afghanistan that will coincide with the run-up to the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections could impact his commitment to the war.
"The clocks are moving but the reality obviously is what it is," said a senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. The U.S.-led international force "has to show enough of a change in a year. If the new normal is less (violence) . . . that is making progress."
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes & Spooks