Democracy milestone for Afghans

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Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats and rain to vote in crucial elections.

It underscored their enormous expectations from elections that come as the country’s government prepares to face down a ferocious insurgency largely on its own.

Combat forces from the US-led coalition are winding down a 13-year presence and the mercurial Hamid Karzai is stepping aside.

It means the country’s new leader will find an altered landscape as he replaces the only president Afghans have known since the Taliban were ousted in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

But for some progress, particularly with women’s rights, the country’s situation is inauspicious, especially with its poor security and battered economy.

Yet despite spiralling carnage and grave disappointments, Afghans by the millions crowded mosque courtyards and queued up at schools to vote on at the weekend, telling a war-weary world they want their voices heard. Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.

“I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote,” she said.

“I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election.”

Partial results could come soon, but final results are not expected for a week or more.

International combat troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, leaving Afghan security forces – not completely battle-tested and plagued with insurgents even among their ranks – to fight alone against what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taliban to regain power.

A security agreement with the US would allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country to continue training security forces after 2014. Mr Karzai – perhaps trying to shake off his image as a creation of the Americans – has refused to sign it, but all eight presidential candidates say they will.

In congratulating Afghanistan on the election, US president Barack Obama said it represented “another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces.

“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.”

The UN Security Council praised “the courage of the Afghan people to cast their ballot despite the threat and intimidation by the Taliban and other extremist and terrorist groups”.

In general, there do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among the front-runners.

They are Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai’s main rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister.

A run-off is widely expected since none is likely to get the majority needed for outright victory.

All eight preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security, while they differ on other issues.

The run-up to the election was troubling. The Taliban vowed to disrupt it by targeting polling stations and election workers sand on Friday, veteran Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and AP reporter Kathy Gannon wounded when a local policeman opened fire as they sat in their car in eastern Afghanistan.