KABUL — Saturday was the second time in just over two months that millions of Afghans defied constant Taliban threats and headed to the polls to cast a vote in run-off between the two former government ministers, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
As polls closed around the country, voters proudly held up their ink-stained forefingers to prove that they had cast their ballot.
One young first-time voter, Sheikayba Alokozy, said explosions that rocked Kabul in the early morning were not enough to interrupt the election.
"We want peace in Afghanistan, and we want a complete change in the country," she said. "We are not scared of anybody. The enemy, no matter how much they attack us, we will not run away and we will cast our ballots."
Interior Minister Mohammed Omer Daudzai reported 150 minor attacks, including roadside bombs and rocket firing. He said 46 civilians and security force personnel and 60 insurgents were killed nationwide. Hours after the polls closed, officials in the rural Herat province said Taliban militants had cut off the fingers of at least 11 people who voted.
The overall violence was not enough to derail the process, however, and officials began to congratulate Afghans for another successful election shortly after polls had closed.
The Taliban claimed they had carried out more than 240 attacks across the country. The militant group often exaggerates and there was no independent verification of its claims.
Afghanistan’s acting intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabel said most of the attempted militant attacks had been foiled.
"The insurgents had planned more than 1,000 attacks, and in some cases they were able to carry out those attacks, but they failed to disrupt the vote, and some of our countrymen were martyred as a result, but they did not manage to derail the elections," he said.
The International Security Assistance Force commended the Afghan troops Saturday, saying the successful election "clearly demonstrates" Afghans' confidence in the security provided by their own forces.
Independent Election Commission chief Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani said Saturday’s turnout was strong, equaling numbers recorded in the first round April 5 election, in which none of presidential candidates claimed the 50 percent mark required to obviate Saturdays runoff between Ghani and Abdullah.
"The estimated number of voters in today’s elections is of more than seven million, of which women were 38 percent, and men 62 percent," he said.
After a series of early morning blasts in Kabul, voters began to stream into polling centers around the capital. Outside the polling stations, streets were largely empty except for armed police walking or riding in pickup trucks. Most voters walked to their local polling centers, and the few drivers who ventured onto the street were stopped and questioned.
For many, such as Haji Gholam Gilani, this election was a historic chance to lay a path for the country’s future.
"This election is important not just for me, but also for the future of my children," he said. "This vote will decide the future of the country for the next five years, and that is why I am here."
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission and Complaints Commission have said they will review all reports of voting irregularities. Officials have said it is crucial that the vote is credible, so that the results are acceptable to the Afghan people.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham issued a statement praising voters and Afghanistan’s security forces. Cunningham and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also encouraged the country’s electoral commissions to look into any voting irregularities and called on the candidates to respect the results.
The final result of Saturday’s election is expected July 22. Whoever wins the vote will succeed current President Hamid Karzai and lead Afghanistan for the next five years.
Both presidential candidates have pledged to maintain a close military relationship with the United States. That would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country for two more years to conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising the Afghan army and police.