Afghans voted in the presidential elections amid strict security on Saturday, even when insurgents attacked the polling stations in a series of explosions and clashes across the country that left at least two people dead.
The first-round vote marks the culmination of a bloody election campaign that, despite a large field of candidates, is considered a closed race between President Ashraf Ghani and his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, the country's chief executive.
The cautious authorities placed a restless Kabul under a partial blockade, flooding the streets with troops and prohibiting trucks from entering the city in an effort to stop potential suicide bombers attacking residents while casting their votes.
The polls closed at 5:00 p.m. (1230 GMT) after a two-hour extension due to the long lines of people still waiting to vote, the Independent Electoral Commission said.
Compared to the previous elections, the initial number seemed relatively low, although the authorities provided little information on reported explosions and ongoing armed clashes with the Taliban in several provinces.
A security official who requested anonymity said AFP that two civilians died and 27 were injured in Taliban bombings and mortar attacks in polling stations across the country.
Serious security incidents were reported in several provinces, including Kunduz, Nangarhar, Kabul, Bamiyan and Kandahar.
The Taliban, who unleashed a series of bombings during the two-month election campaign, claimed to have carried out hundreds of attacks against the "false elections" in Afghanistan.
Ghani, having voted in a high school in Kabul, said the most important issue was to find a leader with the mandate to bring peace to the war-torn nation.
"Our road map (for peace) is ready, I want people to give us permission and legitimacy to seek peace," said Ghani, who is looking for a second term.
Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many lack the faith that, after 18 years of war, any leader can unify the frantic country and improve basic living conditions, boost the stagnant economy or strengthen the economy. security.
Observers from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said participation seemed to be low, especially among women.
Still, many voters challenged the insurgents' attacks and long queues to vote.
"I know there are security threats, but bombs and attacks have become part of our daily lives," said Mohiuddin, 55, who only gave a name. AFP.
"I'm not afraid, we have to vote if we want to bring changes."
Abdullah and Ghani claimed victory in the 2014 elections, a vote so stained by fraud and violence that led to a constitutional crisis and forced the then president of the United States, Barack Obama, to press for a compromise that would allow Abdullah grant the subordinate role.
"The only request I have from the electoral commission is to guarantee the transparency of the elections because many people have lost their confidence," said 23-year-old Afghan voter Sunawbar Mirzae.
Voting in the fourth presidential election in Afghanistan was supposed to take place in some 5,000 polling stations across the country, but hundreds were closed due to the security situation.
Many Afghans said the vote was smooth, triumphantly raising their fingers stained with indelible ink to show they had voted, but several said they had experienced problems.
“I came early this morning to cast my vote. Unfortunately, my name was not on the list, "said Ziyarat Khan, a farmer in Nangarhar." The whole process is messy like last time. "
The campaign was hampered by violence from day one, when Ghani's formula partner was targeted by a bomb and weapon attack that left at least 20 dead.
Bloody attacks have continued to shake Afghanistan, including a Taliban bombing at a Ghani rally last week that killed at least 26 people in the central province of Parwan, near Kabul.
The interior ministry said it had deployed 72,000 forces to help secure the polling stations.
Election officials say this will be the cleanest choice so far, with equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for election workers to ensure that the vote is fair.
Still, the US embassy in Kabul has said it is "disturbed by so many complaints about security, lack of equal conditions and fraud."
Saturday's survey was initially scheduled for April, but it was delayed twice because election workers were not well prepared, and the United States was leading an effort to forge a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.
That agreement has failed for now after the president of the United States, Donald Trump, withdrew, and the next president of Afghanistan will probably face the difficult task of trying to reach an agreement with the Taliban.
The results are not expected until October 19. Candidates need more than 50 percent of the votes to be declared the absolute winner, or else the best two will go to a second round in November.
Pakistan extends congratulations
Pakistan congratulated the government of Afghanistan and the people for successfully holding the 4th presidential elections "despite serious obstacles and challenges," said a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"The people of Afghanistan in particular deserve recognition for their clear decision to continue the democratic course," the statement said.
Pakistan expressed hope that with the new government, the stalled peace process can move forward to bring a "negotiated political agreement led by Afghanistan and owned by Afghanistan" to the 18-year conflict in Afghanistan.
"Pakistan will continue to facilitate the new Afghan government for this purpose," the Foreign Ministry said in its statement.
The statement also emphasized that a "strong, independent, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan" is key to regional peace and stability.