- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans embraced democracy by the millions yesterday, with voters undaunted by weeks of violence and threats of terrorist attacks to cast ballots for the first elected parliament in decades.

The vote went smoothly, with only a handful of incidents involving gunfire or militant attacks at the 6,200 polling stations.

“We are going to vote for the people who will do something for the country, not just for us,” said Yosof Khan, dressed in the traditional loose-fitting garb and turban donned by members of his nomadic Kuchi tribe for centuries.

Mr. Khan gestured to a throng of bearded men who nodded in agreement outside tents pitched amid desolate mountain peaks east of Kabul.

With more than 12 million voters registered, election officials said 80 percent to 85 percent cast ballots — an unheard-of turnout in Western democracies.

Voters also selected local leaders for Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

The polling stations were erected in mosques and community centers in provincial capitals, with tents and makeshift cardboard booths used in rural locations.

Voters were handed seven-page, poster-sized ballots, complete with pictures of all the candidates for those Afghans who can’t read — an estimated 80 percent of the population.

Ballots are to be collected using donkeys and camels in some remote areas, and preliminary results are not expected until early October.

“I am very happy with today’s voting — it was calm, even festive … it was the kind of day the Afghans deserved,” said Bronwyn Curran, a spokeswoman for the Joint Electoral Management Body, which organized and oversaw the elections.

After being plagued by war and unrest for the past three decades, for many Afghans, the vote yesterday was just the second time they had participated in a democratic election. Less than a year ago, Afghans elected Hamid Karzai as president.

“We are making history,” Mr. Karzai said while casting his ballot. “It’s the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions.”

Until 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces arrived, Afghanistan was ruled by the hard-line Taliban regime, which was removed from power after refusing to turn over terror mastermind Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks.

For five years, the Taliban had controlled most of Afghanistan and strictly enforced Shariah, or Islamic law. There were brutal punishments for petty crimes and strict codes of conduct for women, who were forbidden from working or from attending school.

Afghan women were out in force yesterday, with reports that in some provinces the lines for female voters were longer than those for male voters.

“We are changing Afghanistan with our own hands,” said Rahima Zamir. The science teacher added that she secretly taught girls pulled from school during the Taliban rule.

Even though it no longer is in power, the Taliban’s presence remains pervasive in Afghanistan, and several former regime leaders were candidates yesterday for seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or “House of People,” as the parliament is known.

Human rights groups expressed concerns about the possible inclusion of former Taliban members in Afghanistan’s new government.

A Taliban spokesman on Friday warned Afghans to stay away from the polls and said attacks had been planned against polling stations.

Since then, three police officers and seven militants have been killed, and 20 men have been arrested for plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam in the southern province of Helmand.

Fifteen persons, including a French commando in the U.S.-led coalition, were killed during the day, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. and Afghan forces came under fire from Taliban suspects near the southern city of Khost, a military spokesman said. One U.S. and two Afghan soldiers were injured.

Other incidents included early morning attacks on polling stations in Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar provinces, where five attacks occurred almost simultaneously, said Staffan Darnolf, a member of the International Foundation for Election Systems observing the election.

About 20,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan with 11,000 NATO peacekeepers.

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