KABUL, Aug 20 – Afghans voted Thursday to elect a president for only the second time in history as fears emerged of poor turnout, despite only sporadic violence from Taliban militants bent on sabotaging the ballot.
Insurgents stormed a small northern town, sparking clashes that prevented voting and killed up to 22 militants, and security fears depressed turnout in Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan.
Western allies have pumped billions into Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown and NATO’s chief hailed the polls as "encouraging", although other observers said turnout was worse than for the first presidential vote in 2004.
President Hamid Karzai urged Afghans to exercise their democratic rights in a nation that, despite the presence of 100,000 foreign troops, is still beset by a bloody insurgency eight years on from the 2001 US-led invasion.
"I request my dear countrymen to come out and cast their vote to decide their future," the western-backed Karzai said as he cast his ballot in a Kabul boys’ school near his heavily fortified palace.
Minor attacks were reported elsewhere, including in Kandahar in the south, which was the capital of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime. But cautiously optimistic Afghan and UN officials said violence could have been far worse.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said early reports on turnout were "a clear demonstration that the Afghan people want democracy, they want freedom and reject terrorism".
"Hopefully we can conclude the elections have been credible and reflect the will of the Afghan people," added the head of the military alliance, which has deployed 64,500 troops in Afghanistan.
Voting centres allowed those still in queues to cast their ballots after the official close of polls, guarded by a huge deployment of 300,000 Afghan and foreign forces, and election officers began counting ballots late Thursday.
The election commission says partial results could emerge as early as Saturday, but that a full result is not expected before next month.
Pre-election violence stoked fears about whether it would prove safe to vote despite US and NATO troops stepping up their anti-insurgency operations.
But about halfway through voting, Afghan deputy chief electoral officer Zekria Barakzai said: "The turnout is very good."
Independent observers, however, said voter participation appeared low. One Western diplomat told AFP: "Turnout (in Kandahar) is definitely very, very low, significantly lower than in the north.
"I have driven around the city (Kabul) and the situation is varying from time to time, but I have seen no queues and it is definitely very quiet, much quieter than in 2004," he added.
About 70 percent of Afghans voted in the first direct presidential election five years ago.
Karzai hopes to win an outright majority to avoid a run-off, but his nervous government ordered a blackout on reporting violence during polling day, threatening journalists with heavy penalties.
An energetic campaign by ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who has a northern powerbase and draws on ethnic Tajik support, has boosted the chance of a run-off, which would take place in around six weeks time.
Abdullah hailed "a day of change" as he voted alongside his wife and young son. His office detailed 40 complaints of electoral irregularities, most of them alleging that officials were telling people to vote for Karzai.
In the northern town of Baghlan, Taliban militants launched a multi-pronged assault that sparked heavy clashes, killing up to 22 militants and preventing voting, government officials said.
In the capital, a two-hour shootout between insurgents and Afghan forces killed two militants in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
"I don’t care about the Taliban and their threats. Who do they think they are? We have a government, police, army, the infrastructure of a functioning state. The Taliban are all talk," said 27-year-old Ramin after voting in Kabul.
Western officials played down expectations of perfectly free and fair elections over reports of vote-buying and Karzai’s reliance on warlords, but said an estimated quarter of a million observers would guard against abuses.
The election authority said it was investigating complaints of irregularities, including that indelible ink used to prevent people voting more than once could be scrubbed off with a cleaning liquid.
Seventeen million Afghans registered to elect a president and 420 councillors in 34 provinces across the largely rural and impoverished country.