KABUL—Despite threats of attacks by Taliban insurgents, Afghans came forward slowly early Saturday to vote in the country’s fourth presidential election since a U.S.-led invasion toppled the hard-line Islamist movement from power 18 years ago.
The polling station at the Khwaja Ali Mouafaq Herawi mosque in central Kabul, one of 5,373 posts in schools and mosques across the country, was empty of when the gate opened for voters at 7 a.m. local time. Many of the election workers, mostly schoolteachers hired temporarily from their full-time jobs, hadn’t shown up yet.
Some 15 minutes later, the first voter walked in, eager to vote before he went to work at a nongovernmental organization in the Afghan capital. After grousing about the absence of election workers to help him and other voters, 28-year-old Hashmatullah, who goes only by one name, declared himself pleased.
“I’m happy to be voting today,” he said. “I’m voting to contribute to democracy.”
But it was far from certain how much the fear of Taliban violence and disillusionment with the central government would sap the willingness of the country’s 9.7 million registered voters to cast ballots in a wartime election that was shaping up as a contest between the incumbent president,
his partner in the current national unity government.
At the root of most of the uncertainty is the threat of suicide bombings by the Taliban, who are fighting to expel the U.S. and other foreign forces from the country and to establish their especially austere and rigid brand of Islam among its estimated 34 million people.
Afghan authorities are taking steps to shore up the electoral system before the vote.
Staff working at
Biometric devices to verify identity of voters
Domestic observers and candidate agents
Security forces to secure the poll
Deployed army soldiers and intelligence units
The insurgency, now almost a quarter-century old, now controls more territory in the country than at any time since the U.S. invasion in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Since campaigning began two months ago, more than 170 civilians have been killed and at least 300 injured in election-related violence.
The dead include 26 people who were killed by a suicide bombing at a Ghani campaign rally in Parwan province on Sept. 17. Mr. Ghani wasn’t hurt.
On Thursday, the Taliban repeated its vow to disrupt the vote, ordering its fighters to “use everything at their disposal” to sabotage what it called a sham, foreign-inspired process. “Stay away from polling stations on election day,” they warned.
About 75,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been deployed to guard polling stations in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Even so, roughly 2,000 stations won’t open because they couldn’t be adequately protected, according to Afghan officials. U.S. military personnel will be prepared to aid Afghan forces if needed, Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for the U.S.-led international military coalition in Afghanistan, said earlier this week.
Since the first post-2001 presidential election, only two presidents have ruled Afghanistan. The first,
held office until 2014. He was succeeded by Mr. Ghani, a former World Bank economist and co-author of “Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World.”
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The total cost of the polling is $149 million, most of which—$90 million—is being funded by the government for the first time. But the presidency isn’t the only thing at stake in Saturday’s election.