Afghan voters turn out in force in defiance of Taleban

Election officials count votes at a station in Kandahar/ Pictures: AFP/Getty Images
Election officials count votes at a station in Kandahar/ Pictures: AFP/Getty Images
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A BIGGER-than-expected turnout in Afghanistan’s presidential election and the Taleban’s failure to derail the vote has raised questions about the capacity of the insurgents to tip the country back into chaos as foreign troops head home.

The Taleban claimed that they staged more than 1,000 attacks and killed dozens during Saturday’s election, which they have branded a US-backed deception of the Afghan people, though security officials said the figures were a gross exaggeration.

There were dozens of minor roadside bombs, and attacks on polling stations, police and voters during the day, but the overall level of violence was much lower than the Taleban had threatened to unleash.

And, 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.

“This is how people vote to say death to the Taleban,” said one Afghan on Twitter, posting a photograph that showed his friends holding up a finger – stained with ink to show they had voted – in a gesture of defiance.

There was a palpable sense in Kabul yesterday that perhaps greater stability is within reach after 13 years of strife since the fall of the Taleban’s hardline Islamist regime in late 2001.

The insurgency has claimed the lives of at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands more soldiers.

“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.”

However, this could be the beginning of a long and potentially dangerous period for Afghanistan as it will take weeks, if not months, to count votes and declare the winner.

Although the Taleban failed to pull off major attacks on election day itself, some fear insurgents are preparing to disrupt the count, which began on Saturday night. In the first such attack since polling closed, a roadside bomb killed two election workers and one policeman and destroyed dozens of ballot papers yesterday.

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 Taleban plans to hit voters and polling stations.

It is possible the Taleban deliberately lay low to give the impression of improving security in order to hasten the exit of US troops and gain more ground later.

After all, they managed to launch a wave of spectacular attacks in the run-up to the vote, targeting foreigners, security forces and civilians.

Indeed, they remain a formidable force: estimates of the number of Taleban fighters, who are mostly based in lawless southern and eastern areas of the country, range up to 30,000.

Borhan Osman of the independent Afghan Analysts Network argues that for now the insurgency does not appear to be winning, though the Taleban might argue it has already exhausted the United States’s will to fight.