By Mike Collett-White
Inside the compound, UN workers explained to Afghans voting for the first time how democracy worked a simple tick beside their candidate of choice
AFGHAN men and women across the volatile south ignored the threat of militant attacks on Saturday, queuing at polling stations in villages and towns that were Taliban heartland three years ago.
In the main southern city of Kandahar, the atmosphere was festive as large crowds of men pushed to get into a voting site near the blue-tiled Kherqi Sharif mosque.
On the other side of the street, a trickle of women covered in burqa veils entered a school to take part in Afghanistans first direct presidential poll.
We came here to vote for peace and stability and freedom for women, said Raihana, a 37-year-old mother of eight who lived in exile in Iran for 14 years to flee war. I am illiterate and I want a chance to learn, she said from behind her heavy veil. If the Taliban were in power, our lives would still be in ruins.
Preparations for the election were plagued by logistical challenges and security threats in the south and southeast, where the death toll from guerrilla attacks among civilians and security personnel has been highest. The 472 polling stations in five southern provinces are far fewer than the United Nations would have liked, voter registration is lower than average and fewer than 300,000 women will vote here in this ultra-conservative Islamic society.
In some ways the success or otherwise of the election in these troubled areas will be the true test for Afghanistan and for the United States government, which wants to hold up the process as a foreign policy success and an example for Iraq.
Urban terrorism: On the eve of the landmark ballot, Kandahar governor Yusuf Pashtun warned of the threat of urban terrorism, or a major Taliban attack, in heavily populated areas.
So far these have failed to materialise, although Afghan soldiers intercepted a truck carrying 60,000 litres of fuel and primed with explosives outside the city on Thursday, averting what Pashtun said could have been a catastrophic blast.
Officials in Kunar province, east of Kabul, said several rockets were fired in two villages overnight but there were no casualties. Security in Kandahar was tight, with Afghan police carrying rifles guarding polling sites and searching people entering to vote. US armoured Humvee vehicles mounted with machine guns rolled through town in a show of strength.
People were likely to be more nervous about voting in remote districts of Kandahar, Zabul, Helmand and Uruzugan provinces, where Taliban remnants have been most deadly.
President Hamid Karzai, who is from Kandahar and an ethnic Pashtun like most in the south, is expected to do well in the region, and many voters said they had backed the favourite. At one polling site, young members of Karzais campaign team wearing baseball caps emblazoned with his picture told voters to support him, in an apparent breach of election rules.
Inside the compound, UN workers explained to Afghans voting for the first time how democracy worked a simple tick beside their candidate of choice.
This is the first time I have voted in my life, beamed Mullah Abdul Ghafar, 56, through a toothless grin. Previous governments did not allow me to choose my leader, said the man, his white beard matching his turban.
Despite euphoria in central Kandahar, the vote is not universally popular across the south, where some favour the ousted Taliban and its strict interpretation of Islamic laws to a US-backed government in Kabul propped up by thousands of foreign soldiers in the country.
Even some of those who voted on the coolest morning of the year in this normally hot and dusty city were not wholly critical of the hardline militia, widely credited for bringing better security than exists today. There were a number of Afghan Taliban who were good people, but the Pakistanis and Arabs tried to destroy our lives, said Abdul Zahir, a 43-year-old with a greying beard and grey turban. reuters