KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghans packed polling stations on Saturday for a historic presidential election that was blemished when all 15 candidates opposing U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai withdrew, charging the government and the U.N. with fraud and incompetence.
In the end, faulty ink -- not Taliban bombs and bullets -- threatened three years of painstaking progress toward democracy. The opposition candidates claimed the ink used to mark people's thumbs rubbed off too easily, allowing for mass deception.
Electoral officials rejected opposition demands that voting be stopped at midday, saying it would rob millions of people of their first chance to directly decide their leader, and the joint U.N.-Afghan panel overseeing the election would rule later on the vote's legitimacy.
Afghans braved the threat of violence to cast ballots countrywide.
"I am old, but this vote is not just for me. It is for my grandchildren," said Nuzko, 58, a widow who stood in line at a Kabul voting station. Like many Afghans, she uses only one name. "I want Afghanistan to be secure and peaceful."
But the controversy nonetheless cast a pall over what had been a joyous day in Afghanistan. Millions of ethnically diverse Afghan voters crammed polling stations for an election aimed at bringing peace and prosperity to a country nearly ruined by more than two decades of war. Men and women voted at separate booths in keeping with this nation's conservative Islamic leanings.
Karzai -- who is widely favored to win -- said the fate of the balloting was with electoral panel, but he added that, in his view, "the election was free and fair ... it is very legitimate."
"Who is more important, these 15 candidates, or the millions of people who turned out today to vote?" Karzai said. "Both myself and all these 15 candidates should respect our people -- because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited for hours and hours to vote."
Even if the vote is ultimately validated, Karzai's ability to unite this nation, fight rampant warlordism and crush a lingering Taliban insurgency in this nation of an estimated 25 million people might be fatally compromised if his opponents refuse to accept the results and insist that his rule is illegitimate.
Taliban rebels got into a skirmish with U.S. troops that left at least 25 insurgents dead, and managed to kill three Afghan policemen accompanying ballots back to a counting center after the vote. Eight more police and two civilians died when their vehicles ran over mines.
But the rebels did not muster anything approaching the massive attack they had threatened to derail the election.
The boycott was a blow to the international community, which spent almost $200 million staging the vote. At least 12 election workers, and dozens of Afghan security forces, died in the past few months as the nation geared up for the vote.
The chaos also threatened to become part of the debate in the U.S. presidential campaign. President Bush has held Afghanistan up as an example of flourishing democracy and a precursor to elections his administration insists will move forward in January in Iraq, despite continuing violence there.
Bush backs voting
In St. Louis, the president exulted in the Afghan vote as a "marvelous thing" and said his administration should receive at least partial credit.
"Freedom is powerful," Bush told a Republican breakfast fund raiser. "Think about a society in which young girls couldn't go to school, and their mothers were whipped in the public square, and today they're holding a presidential election."
It was a starkly different scene in Kabul, where the opposition candidates met at the house of Uzbek candidate Abdul Satar Sirat and signed a petition saying they would not recognize the vote results.
Sirat, an ex-aide to Afghanistan's last king and a minor candidate expected to poll in the low single-digits, said all 15 challengers to Karzai agreed to the boycott.
"Today's election is not a legitimate election. It should be stopped and we don't recognize the results," Sirat said. "This vote is a fraud and any government formed from it is illegitimate."
Islamic poet Abdul Latif Padran, another minor candidate, said, "Today was a very black day. Today was the occupation of Afghanistan by America through elections."
Election officials acknowledged that workers at some voting stations mistakenly swapped the permanent ink meant to mark thumbs with normal ink meant for ballots but insisted the problem was caught quickly.
"Halting the vote at this stage is unjustified and would deny these people their right to vote," said Ray Kennedy, vice chairman of the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral panel. "There have been some technical problems but overall it has been safe and orderly."
Kennedy said it could take time for the electoral body to reach a decision on the vote's legitimacy. Initial results were not expected until late today or early Monday, and anything approaching a full count could take two weeks.
About 10.5 million registration cards were handed out for the election, a staggering number that U.N. and Afghan officials say was inflated by widespread double registration. Organizers had argued that the indelible ink would prevent people from voting twice.
A 13-member U.S. observer team from the bipartisan International Republican Institute described the polls as "a triumph for the Afghan people."
"It is not surprising that some of the candidates are raising the question (about the ink)," said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aaronson, the team's co-leader. "Perhaps some of those who don't do so well are trying to provide an excuse for why they didn't do so well."
The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent observer missions as well.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad arrived at the opposition camp to meet with Sirat, making no comment other than to say he was there "only to help."
Khalilzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan, has been widely criticized for perceived favoritism for Karzai and is seen by many Afghans as a puppet-master. Afghans gathered outside the house joked that a resolution to the crisis was near because "the big man has arrived."
Later, the ambassador issued a statement calling the elections "a profound success." He said initial indications pointed to turnout that was "extraordinarily high."
"We recognize that some allegations remain and that there should be a process to address these allegations through a thorough and transparent investigation," Khalilzad said.
But he also warned, "For Afghanistan to win, the losers in the election should not undermine the achievement of the Afghan people."
The election was supposed to offer a stark contrast to Afghanistan's many forms of imposed rule in the past 30 years -- monarchy, Soviet occupation, warlord fiefdoms and the repressive Taliban theocracy ousted by the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"In the line waiting with me, there were women from all the different groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara," said Gul Sum, a 60-year-old housewife from Kabul. "For the first time, women are having a say in the future of Afghanistan. We are fed up with war."