Afghans vote to choose new leader

Millions of Afghans vote in an election for the first democratic transfer of power in the country's history.

Villagers transport election materials on donkeys in the Dara-e-Noor district of Nangarhar province in Eastern Afghanistan on 4 April 2014. Picture: AFP/Noorullah Shirzada

KABUL - From the rugged mountains bordering Pakistan to the windswept western plains, millions of Afghans vote on Saturday in an election for the first democratic transfer of power in the country's tumultuous history.

The Taliban, hard-line Islamists bent on toppling the government, have deployed fighters countrywide to disrupt an election they brand a US-backed sham. Dozens of people have been killed in a spasm of violence leading up to the vote.

A veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and a senior correspondent of the same news agency was wounded on Friday when a policeman opened fire on the two women in eastern Afghanistan as they reported on preparations for the poll.

More than 350,000 Afghan troops have been put on duty to thwart attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital, Kabul, has been sealed off from the rest of the country by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.

Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban insurgency, was in virtual lockdown ahead of the vote. Residents were advised to stay home.

Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, is not allowed to run for the presidency again by the constitution, but is widely expected to retain his hold on politics through politicians loyal to him.

Voters will inevitably be looking back at Afghanistan's progress since 2001 when US-led forces toppled the Taliban who were harbouring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Those 13 years have seen seemingly endless bloodshed - at least 16,000 civilians, 3,500 foreign troops and thousands of Afghan soldiers have been killed.

Billions of dollars have been spent rebuilding the country.

"The Karzai government has to be given credit for some limited achievements on human rights in very difficult conditions," Amnesty International said in a statement.

"But the situation for millions of Afghans remains dire, and even the progress we have seen is very fragile."

With no clear frontrunner, the process is likely to drag on for weeks, if not months, particularly if there is a run-off.

Any delay would leave little time to complete a crucial pact between Kabul and Washington to keep up to 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 - after most foreign troops pull out.

"The whole future of Afghanistan is at stake," Franz-Michael Mellbin, the EU's special representative in Kabul, told Reuters. "It's crucial ... the Afghans come out and vote in large numbers and give political legitimacy, and the aftermath of the elections will be crucial because we need a stable government."