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Saturday, December 3, 2016

By Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

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 roughly 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 past 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 to Afghanistan’s conservative society as well as fears 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 sizable 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 past elections, voters had their forefingers dipped 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.