A bigger-than-expected turnout in Afghanistan's presidential election and the Taliban's failure to significantly disrupt the vote have raised questions about the capacity of the insurgents to tip the country back into chaos as foreign troops head home.
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The Taliban claimed that they staged more than 1,000 attacks and killed dozens during Saturday's election, which they have branded a U.S.-backed deception of the Afghan people, though security officials said it was a gross exaggeration.
There were dozens of minor roadside bombs, and attacks on polling stations, police and voters during the day. On Sunday, a roadside bomb killed two Afghan election workers and one policeman and destroyed dozens of ballot papers in Khanabad district of the northern Kunduz province, police and an election official said.
But the overall level of violence was much lower than the Taliban had threatened to unleash on the country.
Despite the dangers they faced at polling stations, nearly 60 per cent of the 12 million people eligible to vote turned out, a measure of the determination for a say in their country's first-ever democratic transfer of power, as President Hamid Karzai prepares to stand down after 12 years in power.
More than 6,000 polling centres were operating and more than 7 million ballots were cast, officials said.
"This is how people vote to say death to the Taliban," said one Afghan on Twitter, posting a photograph that showed his friends holding up one finger — stained with ink to show they had voted — in a gesture of defiance.
There was a palpable sense in Kabul, the capital, on Sunday that perhaps greater stability is within reach after 13 years of strife since the ouster of the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime in late 2001. The insurgency has claimed the lives of at least 16,000 Afghans civilians and thousands more security forces.
"It was my dream come true," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan's parliament.
"That was a fantastic slap on the face of the enemy of Afghanistan, a big punch in the face of those who believe Afghanistan is not ready for democracy."
Taliban could make a comeback
It may be too early, however, to conclude from the Taliban's failure to trip up the election that it is now on a backfoot.
More than 350,000 security forces were deployed for the vote, and rings of checkpoints and roadblocks around the capital, Kabul, may well have thwarted Taliban plans to hit voters and polling stations.
It is possible that the Taliban deliberately lay low to give the impression of improving security in order to hasten the exit of U.S. troops and gain more ground later. After all, they managed to launch a wave of spectacular attacks in the run-up to the vote.
Indeed, they remain a formidable force: estimates of the number of Taliban fighters, who are mostly based in lawless southern and eastern areas of the country, range up to 30,000.
There could be an opportunity for the Taliban to reassert itself if — as happened in 2009 — the election is marred by fraud and rigging, and Afghans feel cheated of a credible outcome.
Early reports would suggest that this election was far smoother than the last one. Still, there were many instances of ballot-stuffing and attempts to vote with fake cards on Saturday.
Around 14 per cent of polling centres did not open, most of them in the south-east and southern provinces where the Taliban presence is strongest, as the army was unable to provide security due to the high risks of attack.
There is also a risk that if a final result is delayed for several months, a strong possibility if there has to be a run-off between the top two candidates, this would leave a political vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.
"An ambiguous electoral outcome breeds uncertainty and confusion, which can grow the gap between the government and its citizens and leave a bigger opening for the Taliban to cause trouble," Diplai Mukhopadhyay, an Afghanistan expert at Columbia University in New York, said in an email comment to Reuters.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Saturday that Afghanistan's presidential election marks another milestone in the effort by the Afghan people to take full responsibility for their country as the U.S. and its allies gradually withdraw their forces.
"We commend the Afghan people, security forces and elections officials on the turnout for [Saturday’s] vote, which is in keeping with the spirited and positive debate among candidates and their supporters in the run-up to the election," Obama said in a statement.
'That was a fantastic slap on the face of the enemy of Afghanistan, a big punch in the face of those who believe Afghanistan is not ready for democracy.' - Shukria Barakzai, member of Afghanistan's parliament
"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 to adjudicate the results, knowing that the most critical voices on the outcome are those of Afghans themselves," he said.
The members of the UN Security Council released a statement calling the historic elections a vital step in “Afghanistan’s transition and democratic development.”
“The members of the Security Council commend the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces in leading security arrangements for the elections, and call on the Afghan Government, with the assistance of the international community, to continue to address the threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan.”