By Benjamin Goad - 04/05/14 11:11 AM EDT
Under the threat of violence, Afghans flocked by the thousands to the polls Saturday to cast votes in a presidential contest that marks the nation's first Democratic transfer of power and holds major implications for U.S. involvement there.
Eleven candidates are vying to replace President Hamid Karzai, elected more than a dozen years ago after the fall of the Taliban's stronghold in 2001. Among them, three are seen as front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmay Rassoul.
If, as expected, there is no clear winner, a run-off election would be held in June, with a victor expected to be sworn in sometime in late August.
“It is our expectation that this is a little bit different than most elections that are conducted in the U.S. in which we find out the results that night or the next day,” White House deputy press secretary Josh earnest told reporters this week.
“But at the same time, we're hopeful that the elections will be peaceful and inclusive and broadly acceptable to the Afghan people.”
Whoever emerges as Afghanistan’s next president will take the helm at a pivotal moment in terms of the United States’ continuing military presence there.
American combat troops are slated to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by year’s end. But the United States has backed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would allow troops to remain in the country in an advisory capacity for many years after.
Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, saying he wanted to leave it for the incoming president to decide.
Still, the United States has taken a decidedly hands-off approach to the elections, allowing the Afghani government to take charge of the massive logistical and security operations involved.
“This election process is Afghan-owned,” Earnest said. “The Afghan security forces are in the lead country-wide. The leaders and staff of the electoral institutions are all Afghan. And the campaign period over the past two months was full of open and responsible debate among the candidates. But it will be up to the Afghan people to choose the future direction of their country.”
Violence cast a pall over the elections, with Taliban vowing attacks to disrupt the voting. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on the eve of the election condemning the actions.
“The Secretary-General denounces violence by any group,” spokesman Farhan Haq said. “He specifically condemns statements by the Taliban threatening further attacks on civilian election workers, candidates, observers, voters and election sites. He reiterates that deliberate attacks against civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law and that those responsible will be held accountable.”
Media reports suggested heavy turnout Saturday, despite scattered reports of mortar fire at some polling places.