Threats and attacks discourage some from voting in the presidential election, but many say nothing can keep them from exercising their right. Turnout appears to surge late in the day.
Kabul, Afghanistan - The concrete floor was cracked and the windows caked with grime, but the sense of pride was palpable at Zarghani Girls' High School as voters lined up today to cast their ballots in Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential election.
"It's for me, and it's for my country," said a baby-faced 18-year-old named Nasir, who was voting for the first time. "If it's dangerous, I don't care. I'm happy."
The election is regarded as pivotal by U.S. and other Western officials, who hope it will bolster the legitimacy of Afghanistan's central government as it confronts a virulent insurgency, together with a host of other problems including corruption, poverty and a booming narcotics trade.
Taliban threats and scattered violence appeared to have damped the voter turnout in some parts of the country, particularly in the dangerous south, though it appeared to rebound later in the day.
Even in the relative security of the capital, Kabul, many people waited until late in the day to go to the polls, when they thought it might be safer. Taking note of that, authorities extended the voting time by one hour.
For those who were there at the start of the vote, though, it was an occasion to savor. At 7 a.m., election worker Murza Mohammed Ahmadi turned a large Tupperware-type container upside down, shook it to show it was empty, and then ceremoniously fastened it shut with plastic ties.
"And now we vote," he said with satisfaction.
The balloting pits incumbent President Hamid Karzai against a field of 30 contenders, including a former Taliban commander and two women. Ten hopefuls dropped out just before the voting began, with most of them throwing their support to Karzai.
The Afghan leader faces a tough challenge, however, from three main rivals: former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, populist lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani.
Karzai will face a runoff with the top vote-getter among them unless he garners more than 50% of the vote today , something that surveys suggest is unlikely.
A preliminary tally is expected to be released Saturday, but resolving election complaints and arriving at a final figure is a process likely to drag on well into September. If there is a runoff, it would be in early October.
In the capital, security for the vote was among the tightest ever seen in the city. Police were stationed on nearly every corner; streets with polling places were blocked off with barricades or red-and-white police tape. Voters had to submit to thorough body searches; police popped open car trunks and turned people's cellphones off and on.
But even stringent precautions did not stave off attacks. At least five explosions, one of them at a polling station, were reported in Kabul, and for the second day in a row, police and suspected insurgents exchanged gunfire in the center of the city, leaving two militants dead.
Insurgents also fired rockets at the capital of Helmand, the southern province that has been the scene of the summer's fiercest fighting, and at least one death was reported when one of the projectiles struck near a polling station. Elsewhere in Helmand, in a town that U.S. Marines have been fighting to secure, ballots were delivered at midday by helicopter.
But as polling hours drew to a close, some officials were cautiously asserting success. The senior U.N. official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said it appeared the balloting was "working well."
Although observers noted some apparent irregularities - including reports that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers to prevent them from casting ballots more than once could be easily washed off - no allegations of large-scale fraud immediately surfaced.
Karzai turned up early to cast his ballot, posing for the cameras with his ink-stained index finger raised. "Come out and vote," he urged his compatriots.
The 2004 elections provided Karzai with a comfortable win, but many of those interviewed today said it was time for a change of leadership. "For me, it's Abdullah," said Mohammed Ibrahim, 38. "Karzai has had his chance."
The president, however, has forged political alliances among influential tribal and ethnic leaders who are in a position to deliver millions of votes.
To the dismay of the West, Karzai has also engaged in deal making with some notorious former warlords, one of whom is his running mate and another of whom was allowed back into the country just days before the vote in exchange for his backing.
Karzai probably lost some votes, though, as a result of the apparently lower turnout in the south, which is the heartland of his Pashtun ethnic group, his main base of support.
"There were 'night letters' posted by my mosque, and it scared me," said Najibullah Pushtoon, 35, a teacher in the southern city of Kandahar, referring to written threats from local Taliban militants.
Some voters, though, said no warning would have kept them away.
Mohammed Akbar, crippled since childhood, made his way into a Kabul polling station by propelling himself on his callused hands. When he reached the registry, he paused to straighten his turban and take a deep breath.
"Of course I am here," he said. "It's my right."