One would have to be an Afghan to categorize Thursday's elections in Afghanistan as a totally normal day. But despite reports of dozens of attacks, massive firing of rockets in different regions and the fact that polling stations couldn't even be opened in some parts of the country, Afghanistan's Electoral Commission did exactly that. "We did not face any major incidents," said commission chief Azizullah Ludin.
It's difficult to assess just how widespread the problems have been. The security situation makes access to many parts of Afghanistan difficult. But one thing is clear from reports from news agencies, television networks, descriptions given by Afghans on the Internet and telephone calls with dozens of reporters on the ground at different places around the country: The election has been massively disrupted by Taliban attracks. In some parts of the country, especially in northern and southern Afghanistan, it has been hindered entirely.
After the polls closed on Thursday afternoon, the Afghan government made its first assessment of the situation -- and it wasn't exactly flattering. President Hamid Karzai's authorities reported 73 direct attacks against polling stations in 15 provinces.
By contrast, voting in Kabul took place without significant disruptions. Following a shoot-out between two suspected suicide bombers and police early on Thursday morning, no further incidents were reported in the Afghan capital. The two Taliban fighters had entrenched themselves in a house and exchanged fire over the course of several hours with police. Five explosions were also heard on Thursday morning, but it has been difficult to determine what happened because of a government blackout on reporting on election day.
Karzai puts in a theatrical appearance
When President Hamid Karzai voted, he did so as theatrically as ever. Wearing his traditional green coat and accompanied by hundreds of bodyguards, he was escorted to a German school located near the entrance to the presidential palace. Like all other voters, he also had his index finger marked with indelible ink and called on Afghans to do the same. Karzai repeatedly called for "peace" and "no violence on election day."
But not everyone heeded the president's words. The government's claim this evening in Kabul that the election went off relatively peacefully is a stretch. Indeed, dramatic reports of violence came from the northern part of the country. In Baghlan, about one hour south of Kunduz, Taliban insurgents stormed the small town and stopped voting altogether.
Police and international troops in Baghlan clashed violently with the Taliban, which attacked the town from numerous directions and seized control. The insurgents killed the local police chief and several other officers. Afghan sources report that U.S. troops later came to the aid of Afghan forces. They said 22 insurgents had been killed in fighting. Nevertheless, voting did not take place anywhere in the town.
Insurgents also perpetrated serious attacks in Kunduz. German officers said seven rockets were fired at the city and that injuries had been reported. They said one rocket struck a polling station and other shots were fired near a hospital. Provincial Governor Mohammed Omar said Thursday afternoon he estimated that there had been "more than 20" attacks throughout the day.
The situation was especially critical in the district of Chahar Dara, west of Kunduz. Only one polling station was able to open, Omar said, and voters didn't feel safe enough to go and vote. "Hardly anyone came while the polling station was open," he said. Apparently the Taliban had set up checkpoints and checked every car. In the run-up to the election, the insurgents had threatened to cut off voters' ink-stained fingers.
The violence did not prevent voting from taking place in Kunduz -- but participation was very low. "We are assuming that only 50 percent of voters have cast their votes," said Omar. "The others were too much in fear for their lives." At the last election in 2005, participation was much higher, according to Omar. "We did all we could," he said.
Afraid to venture out
The situation in Kunduz is representative of the situation in the rest of Afghanistan. Reports from the south of the country indicated that the turnout there was also very low, because many people were afraid to go to polling stations. Rocket attacks began in Kandahar and Helmand in the morning. Afterwards only a few people were brave enough to venture out of their houses to go and vote -- a factor that will mainly hurt President Karzai, whose supporters live mostly in the south.
Similar reports came from other regions too. A BBC stringer in Wardak, a province just half an hour's drive from Kabul, reported that almost no one there came out to vote. The streets in the cities were empty, the stringer said, with few people daring to venture outside. Like many other parts of the country, Wardak is considered a Taliban stronghold. Here, too, militants had threatened potential voters with death if they turned out to vote.
Besides the low turnout, numerous reports of electoral fraud created doubts about the legitimacy of the vote. Eyewitnesses reported that local tribal leaders -- particularly in the most dangerous regions of the country -- had taken ballot boxes to their homes and then brought them back, filled with ballot papers on which Karzai had been chosen.
It was also apparent on election day just how sloppy the allocation of voter registration cards had been. A CNN reporter encountered a 13-year-old boy who had just voted -- and whose registration card correctly stated his age. It may sound like a bizarre one-off case, but it confirms the fears of observers that more than 2 million of the estimated 17 million registered voters were wrongly listed on electoral lists, or that their names appear twice.
There were also serious doubts right from the start about the reliability of the supposedly water-resistant ink which was intended to prevent multiple voting. Afghans demonstrated to camera crews just how easy it was to remove the mark from their finger using bleach. Opponents of Karzai claimed that significant electoral fraud was carried out in the south of the country using just that technique.
Afghans will only discover the outcome of the election in the coming days. The first preliminary results will probably be made public this weekend, and the final result of the first round of voting will only be announced on Sept. 17. Observers expect that none of the candidates will achieve the absolute majority of 50 percent of the vote or more needed to claim victory in the first round. If that is the case, then there will be a second round of voting, in which Karzai will go up against his most successful opposing candidate in a run-off vote to be decided by a simple majority.