Relief after largely peaceful Afghanistan poll
Turnout estimated at 58 per cent for vote that will bring historic democratic transfer of power
More than 350,000 Afghan troops were deployed, guarding against attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital, Kabul, was sealed off by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.
In the city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban insurgency, the mood was tense. Vehicles were not allowed to move on the roads and checkpoints were set up at every intersection.
Hamida, a 20-year-old teacher working at a Kandahar polling station, said more than a dozen women turned up in the first two hours of voting and added that she expected more to come despite the threat of an attack by the Taliban.
“We are trying not to think about it,“ she said, only her honey-brown eyes visible through her black niqab.
Raising questions about the legitimacy of the vote even before it began, the election commission announced that at least 10 percent of polling stations were expected to be shut due to security threats, and most foreign observers left Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly attack on a hotel in Kabul last month.
In some areas of the country voters complained that polling stations had run out of ballot papers. The interior ministry said six officials - including an intelligence agent - were detained for trying to rig the vote, and elsewhere several people were arrested for trying to use fake voter cards.
Risk of Delay
If there is no outright winner, the two frontrunners would go into a run-off on May 28, spinning out the process into the holy month of Ramadan when life slows to a crawl.
A long delay would leave little time to complete a pact between Kabul and Washington to keep up to 10,000 US troops in the country beyond 2014.
Mr Karzai has rejected the pact, but the three frontrunners have pledged to sign it. Without the pact, far weaker Afghan forces would be left on their own to fight the Taliban.
Uncertainty over the outcome could also stall crucial foreign aid and economic reform, foment ethnic tensions and leave a political vacuum in which the Taliban could gain ground.
The election is a landmark after 13 years of struggle that has killed at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands more soldiers. Nearly 3,500 members of the U.S.-led coalition force have died since deployment in the country over a decade ago.
Mr Karzai’s relations with the United States became increasingly strained in recent years as Afghan casualties mounted, and he voiced frustrated that Washington was not putting enough pressure on Pakistan to stop the Taliban, who base themselves in borderlands.
Although his departure marks a turning point, none of his would-be successors would bring radical change, diplomats say.
“Whether the election will be the great transformative event that everybody expects is, I think, delusional.“ Sarah Chayes, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told a media briefing on the eve of the vote.