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    Afghan Election Officials Urge Patience on Ballot Returns

    The two top candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election are claiming victory, although elections officials are saying it is too early to know who won this week's vote. Analysts say what appears to be an uneven voter turnout coupled with possible claims of fraud could have an impact on the credibility of the election.

    Election officials in Afghanistan are urging candidates to refrain from declaring victory, although that has not stopped the campaigns of incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his chief challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, from claiming a first-round win.

    Election officials say preliminary returns and accurate figures on turnout will not be available for days.

    "In the provinces under high security threat level maybe the turnout was low. But there are many provinces where the participants were high. Now it's very difficult for us, because we could not receive the final figures from the provinces. That is why I cannot say the turnout. Soon, we will announce the turnout when we get the final figure," said Afghanistan's chief electoral officer is Daoud Ali Najafi.

    In the last Afghan presidential election in 2004, voter turnout was 70 percent.

    Most estimates say far fewer Afghans are likely to have voted in this election due to threats of violence from Taliban insurgents that intimidated many potential voters.

    Observers and election officials say turnout varied widely and was very low in some Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.

    Still, Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group says millions of Afghans were able to cast ballots and the election was more peaceful and orderly than many predicted. "Given the threats, more people were able to vote than one might have expected. Even if it is a 40 to 50 percent turnout that is fairly significant in the face of the kind of threats and violence that we had and worldwide 40 to 50 percent is not that bad," hesaid.

    Another major question is whether any presidential candidate managed to obtain 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff election.

    "If the election goes into a second round the element of (a valid) contest will be even further highlighted. In this sense the legitimacy of the result will be I think even further underscored. So there is some advantage, despite the additional burdens it will put on the Afghan government and on the NATO coalition, in actually going to a second round," said James Dobbins, a former special envoy to Afghanistan who is currently the director of international security at the RAND Corporation.

    Rival political camps and independent observers are making accusations of voter fraud in the election. Afghan officials say such claims will be investigated.

    Schneider also questions last minute campaign decisions such as President Karzai's move to bring home from exile Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. "I think one question that one would have in terms of the kinds of people that were brought back by Karzai to be part of his team, if you will, including Dostum, who has a horrendous human rights record and is seen by many as going back to the worst of the warlord practices of the past and I think one would have to be quite worried about that in the future," he said.

    Human rights workers have accused Dostum of killing up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war, a charge he denies.

    Whoever is elected president will face a growing Taliban insurgency and a rapid rise of violent attacks on civilians and tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

    Retired Major General Paul Eaton, a senior advisor at the National Security Network, a Washington-based public policy organization says the next Afghan president will have to be a skillful diplomat and military leader in order to defeat the enemies of his government. "The future president of Afghanistan has got to do a dual focus, focus outward and focus inward, in order to identify his allies, get what he can out of them and those who refuse to be allies to apply, if necessary, military disincentives to drive them to submission," he said.

    U.S. President Barack Obama says his administration does not support any specific Afghan candidate, but wants the election results to reflect the will of the people.

    Mr. Obama's revamped war strategy in Afghanistan is designed to defeat the Taliban and stabilize the country.

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