MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — Afghanistan passed the first major test of the impending post-American era on Saturday with an election that featured a robust turnout, minimal violence and few glaring reports of cheating as voters began the process of selecting a successor to 13-year President Hamid Karzai.
Next comes the counting of some 7 million ballots nationwide and the investigation of hundreds of claims of irregularities — from the serious to the superficial. The process is likely to take several weeks and none of the three presidential front-runners is expected to win an absolute majority, which would mean a runoff vote between the top two no earlier than the end of May.
Still, voters stared down Taliban death threats and lingering memories of fraud-scarred elections, trekking through the deserted streets of Kabul and rain-swept fields in the provinces to polling places guarded by 195,000 Afghan soldiers and police. Some voters quietly left Taliban-controlled villages to cast ballots in the safety of cities and towns. Others waited in long lines under wet skies at schools and mosques, and some were delayed even longer when many polling places ran out of ballots and had to be resupplied.
By day's end, officials said voter turnout had far surpassed the 4.6 million of the 2009 presidential election, and approached that of the first election after the fall of the Taliban, in 2004. Barely one-third of the voters were women, owing both to Afghanistan's conservative society as well as fear of Taliban attacks.
But after a series of high-profile Taliban assaults in recent weeks aimed at derailing the polling — decried by the insurgent group as a U.S.-sponsored plot — violence Saturday was relatively limited. Four civilians and 16 Afghan security personnel were reported killed nationwide.
"We showed the world we are a democracy," Karzai said in an evening address to the nation.
It was heartening news for U.S. officials, who publicly maintained a studied silence but privately described the vote as a barometer for the direction Afghanistan will take after most of the remaining 33,000 American troops withdraw by year's end.
"I commend the Afghan government, electoral bodies and the [security forces] for their enormous effort to plan, secure and hold the elections," tweeted the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, James B. Cunningham.
With Karzai constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, the Obama administration hopes that a change in leadership will refresh relations, which have soured under the increasingly combative Afghan leader. Each of the three presidential front-runners has pledged to sign a long-awaited security agreement that would allow a few thousand American troops to remain beyond 2014 to carry out counterterrorism operations and continue training Afghan forces.
For a sizeable number of rural Afghans, however, the election didn't take place at all: Officials did not open 956 out of a planned 7,168 polling stations because they were located in areas that soldiers and police couldn't secure. There were also reports from several other areas that ballot papers weren't delivered to some unsafe districts or that many voters, particularly women, stayed home out of fear.
In outlying parts of Wardak province, just west of Kabul, the Taliban circulated letters for weeks warning that anyone who participated would be punished or killed. So the night before the vote, 52-year-old Sher Agha drove to the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr, where government security forces patrol the streets.
Early Saturday morning, draped in a mustard-colored shawl to ward off the chill and spitting rain, the tall farmer cast his ballot at the provincial government compound that served as the main polling center in Maidan Shahr, a mountain-ringed town one hour's drive from Kabul.
"People should be proud to vote," he said. "But where I live, people are afraid they might be killed if they vote."
As in previous elections, voters had their forefingers dipped in in indelible ink to guard against multiple vote-casting. The mark could draw the attention of the Taliban, but many, like Sher Agha, decided it was worth the risk.
Low turnout and little official oversight of the balloting in rural areas could open the door for vote-rigging allegations, as in 2009, because of the ability of political partisans to buy off election staff and security forces. One such effort was exposed when the Afghan interior ministry announced that it had arrested two police and intelligence officers for stuffing five ballot boxes in Sayedabad, one of Wardak's most troubled districts.
Voters were also selecting members of elected advisory boards known as provincial councils. At the offices of Mohammad Hazarat Janan, deputy head of the Wardak provincial council, reports came in all morning from rural areas where voter turnout was low.
However, in one rural district, Jalrez, poll workers told Janan they had exhausted all 600 ballot papers within barely two hours of voting. He suspected that was an attempt to cover up possible ballot-stuffing.
"They are making excuses to pave the way for fraud," Janan said, while acknowledging he would have to request a formal investigation.
By 11 a.m., four hours after polls opened, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, the government-appointed election watchdog, said it had received about 200 complaints. They ranged from voting stations that opened late to reports that candidates or authorities had interfered with voting in the provinces, said the commission's spokesman, Nader Mohseni.
One leading presidential candidate, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, tweeted, "There are reports of serious fraud in several locations but all is documented and will be passed on to [the complaints commission] for investigation."
Another front-runner, 2009 presidential runner-up Abdullah Abdullah, told reporters that tens of thousands of people were unable to vote because polling stations ran short of ballot papers.
Both candidates had warned of fraud for weeks leading up to the election, leading some observers to speculate that they were laying the groundwork for challenging the results should either lose to the other or to a third leading candidate: Zalmai Rassoul, a longtime Karzai advisor and ex-foreign minister who is seen as the incumbent's choice."Overall it has gone well," said Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, an election observer group. But he added that certifying the results "is the real test, and that will start from today."
The election has cost $129 million so far, with $55 million funded by the United States, $2.5 million coming from Afghanistan's own budget and the rest from international donors.
There were reports of minor clashes between security forces and armed militants in a handful of provinces. In Logar province south of Kabul, an explosion at a polling station killed a civilian, while two firefights between militants and security forces resulted in no civilian casualties, security officials said.
For the vast majority of Afghans, however, voting was relatively uneventful. In the polling center in Maidan Shahr, as election workers barked orders at unruly voters, 18-year-old Shaherab stood patiently in line, wearing a tattered faux leather jacket and a wide grin.
"It's my first election," said the college student, who uses only one name. Coming of age under the U.S. military's occupation of his country, he moved from the countryside to Kabul to study law and political science, and had come home to cast a ballot for the first president he would have a voice in selecting.
Who that candidate was, he wouldn't divulge, saying only, "I came to elect a loyal president who will bring peace and stability to our country."