Afghanistan: A peaceful landmark election
Afghanistan's presidential election closed with fewer attacks by Taliban fighters than feared.
KABUL - Afghanistan's presidential election closed on Saturday amid relief that attacks by Taliban fighters were fewer than feared for a vote that will bring the first-ever democratic transfer of power in a country plagued by conflict for decades.
It will take six weeks for results to come in from across Afghanistan's rugged terrain and a final result to be declared in the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai.
This could be the beginning of a potentially dangerous period for Afghanistan at a time when the war-ravaged country desperately needs a leader to stem rising violence as foreign troops prepare to leave.
"Today we proved to the world that this is a people driven country," Karzai, wearing his trademark green robe and a lambskin hat, told his nation in televised remarks.
"On behalf of the people, I thank the security forces, election commission and people who exercised democracy and ... turned another page in the glorious history of Afghanistan."
One of the eight candidates will have to score over 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off with his nearest rival.
The Taliban threat to wreck the vote through bombings and assassination failed to materialise, and violent incidents were on a far smaller scale than feared.
Turnout was seven million out of 12 million eligible voters, or about 58 percent, according to preliminary estimates, election commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani told reporters.
That was well above the 4.5 million who voted at the last election in 2009 which was marred by widespread fraud.
"I am here to vote and I am not afraid of any attacks," said Haji Ramazan as he stood in line at a polling station in rain-drenched Kabul. "This is my right, and no one can stop me."
In Washington, President Barack Obama congratulated the Afghan people on the elections.
"We commend the Afghan people, security forces, and elections officials on the turnout for today's vote - which is in keeping with the spirited and positive debate among candidates and their supporters in the run-up to the election," Obama said in a statement.
"These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as continued international support, and we look to the Afghan electoral bodies to carry out their duties in the coming weeks to adjudicate the results - knowing that the most critical voices on the outcome are those of Afghans themselves," Obama said.
The United States could point to the advance of democracy in one of the world's most violent countries as a success as it prepares to withdraw the bulk of its troops this year.
It has spent $90 billion on aid and security training since helping Afghan forces to topple a strict Islamist Taliban regime in 2001, but US support for Afghanistan's fight against the Taliban has faded.
As US troops get ready to go home, the Taliban threat and uncertainty over neighbour Pakistan's intentions leave the worry that Afghanistan could enter a fresh cycle of violence, and once again become a haven for groups like al-Qaeda.
The United States has been at odds with Karzai who has refused US entreaties to sign a bilateral security agreement that would permit about 8,000 US troops to remain in the country after the formal US withdrawal at the end of the year.
US officials are keeping open the option of leaving behind a troop contingent for training Afghan forces and for a counter-terrorism mission if an agreement can be signed later this year by Karzai's successor.
"The United States remains ready to work with the next president of Afghanistan. We will continue to stand with the people of Afghanistan as they work to build a democratic future," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
During Saturday's election, there were dozens of reports of minor roadside bombs, attacks on polling stations, police and voters. In the eastern province of Kunar alone, two voters died and 14 were wounded, while 14 Taliban militants were killed.
Interior Minister Umer Daudzai said nine policemen, seven soldiers, 89 Taliban fighters were killed in the past 24 hours across the country, adding that four civilians were also killed.
Dozens died in a spate of attacks in the preceding weeks. 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 the east as they reported on preparations for the poll.