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Men and women wait in separate lines for a polling station in central Kabul to open on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Despite threats of violence from the Taliban, millions of Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president.

Men and women wait in separate lines for a polling station in central Kabul to open on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Despite threats of violence from the Taliban, millions of Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Men and women wait in separate lines for a polling station in central Kabul to open on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Despite threats of violence from the Taliban, millions of Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president.

Men and women wait in separate lines for a polling station in central Kabul to open on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Despite threats of violence from the Taliban, millions of Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Mohammad Youssuf Nuristani, head of the Afghan government's election organizing body, the Independent Election Commission, gives a news conference after voting in Afghanistan's presidential election on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Mohammad Youssuf Nuristani, head of the Afghan government's election organizing body, the Independent Election Commission, gives a news conference after voting in Afghanistan's presidential election on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani casts his vote in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, the day millions of Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president. A successful election would mark the first democratic transfer of authority in the country's history.

Afghan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani casts his vote in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, the day millions of Afghans went to the polls to elect a new president. A successful election would mark the first democratic transfer of authority in the country's history. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Afghans show off their voter registration cards in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, while waiting in line to vote in the country's presidential election. Despite rainy weather and threats of violence, there were long lines at polling stations in the capital.

Afghans show off their voter registration cards in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, while waiting in line to vote in the country's presidential election. Despite rainy weather and threats of violence, there were long lines at polling stations in the capital. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Staffers with the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan search for their observers at a polling station in Pul-e Charki, an area on the outskirts of Kabul that saw massive fraud in the 2009 presidential elections. FEFA, Afghanistan?s leading domestic election observer group, was monitoring the presidential election Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Staffers with the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan search for their observers at a polling station in Pul-e Charki, an area on the outskirts of Kabul that saw massive fraud in the 2009 presidential elections. FEFA, Afghanistan?s leading domestic election observer group, was monitoring the presidential election Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

A voter opens his ballot in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, during Afghanistan's presidential election. The vote is seen as crucial to both the stability of the country and the legacy of the more than 12-year-old U.S.-led military effort there.

A voter opens his ballot in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, during Afghanistan's presidential election. The vote is seen as crucial to both the stability of the country and the legacy of the more than 12-year-old U.S.-led military effort there. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Voters are searched at a polling station on the outskirts of Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Security was tight across Afghanistan, and all roads into the capital were closed for the election.

Voters are searched at a polling station on the outskirts of Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Security was tight across Afghanistan, and all roads into the capital were closed for the election. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Many polling stations in Kabul saw huge lines on Saturday, April 5, 2014, for Afghanistan's presidential election. A successful election would mark the first democratic transition of power in the country's history.

Many polling stations in Kabul saw huge lines on Saturday, April 5, 2014, for Afghanistan's presidential election. A successful election would mark the first democratic transition of power in the country's history. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

A woman prepares to vote at a polling station in eastern Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, during Afghanistan's presidential election.

A woman prepares to vote at a polling station in eastern Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014, during Afghanistan's presidential election. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah displays his ink-stained finger before voting at a high school in central Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah displays his ink-stained finger before voting at a high school in central Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah casts his vote at a high school in central Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah casts his vote at a high school in central Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan men line up outside a mosque being used as a polling station in Kabul on election day, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Long lines could be found at many polling stations as Afghans braved the rain and Taliban threats to vote.

Afghan men line up outside a mosque being used as a polling station in Kabul on election day, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Long lines could be found at many polling stations as Afghans braved the rain and Taliban threats to vote. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Twenty-two-year-old Kabul resident Habib displays his ink-stained finger after voting at a mosque during the national elections on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Twenty-two-year-old Kabul resident Habib displays his ink-stained finger after voting at a mosque during the national elections on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Kabul resident Gul Mohammed displays his voter registration card before voting at a mosque in Kabul during the national elections on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Kabul resident Gul Mohammed displays his voter registration card before voting at a mosque in Kabul during the national elections on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan women line up outside a polling station at a mosque in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Long lines of Afghans, including women, often stretched for blocks early on election day.

Afghan women line up outside a polling station at a mosque in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Long lines of Afghans, including women, often stretched for blocks early on election day. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan men lined up for more than an hour in this neighborhood in western Kabul, waiting to vote in the national elections on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Afghan men lined up for more than an hour in this neighborhood in western Kabul, waiting to vote in the national elections on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An election worker prepares a stack of ballots before opening the polls at a station in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Voters were choosing a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

An election worker prepares a stack of ballots before opening the polls at a station in Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Voters were choosing a successor to President Hamid Karzai. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Kabul resident Mohammed Sherzai casts his vote at a school in western Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. The national elections drew long lines of Afghans in Kabul, but turnout in rural areas was more uncertain.

Kabul resident Mohammed Sherzai casts his vote at a school in western Kabul on Saturday, April 5, 2014. The national elections drew long lines of Afghans in Kabul, but turnout in rural areas was more uncertain. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An Afghan election worker stands by ballot boxes just before the polls closed on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghans formed lines for blocks to wait for their chance to cast a vote in the presidential election.

An Afghan election worker stands by ballot boxes just before the polls closed on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghans formed lines for blocks to wait for their chance to cast a vote in the presidential election. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

An Afghan woman casts the last ballot at a high school in central Kabul during the national elections held on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Women made up a significant part of the turnout at polling stations across the city.

An Afghan woman casts the last ballot at a high school in central Kabul during the national elections held on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Women made up a significant part of the turnout at polling stations across the city. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

Afghan election workers count presidential ballots cast at a high school in central Kabul after the polls closed on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Eight candidates were vying to replace current President Hamid Karzai in what will be the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history.

Afghan election workers count presidential ballots cast at a high school in central Kabul after the polls closed on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Eight candidates were vying to replace current President Hamid Karzai in what will be the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history. (Josh Smith/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL — On election day in this tense, war-weary capital, rolling afternoon thunder was the only boom heard in the city. Long lines at polling stations were the story on a day many feared violence would mar the vote for the country’s next president.

After more than a week of steady attacks, Kabul was quiet as Afghans turned out in droves to vote in a presidential election that could see the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, go a long way toward convincing donor countries to keep financing its impoverished government and mark a high point in an otherwise troubled, unpopular international military campaign.

Voting was extended by an hour to accommodate large crowds.

That is not to say the day went by without incident. Low turnout was reported in some of the more dangerous areas of the country; some stations ran out of ballots; and there were some deadly attacks in the provinces, though not nearly as many as the Taliban had promised in their furious threats against what they derided as “the fake election.”

Still, turnout was high across the country. The director of the Independent Election Commission, Mohammad Yousuf Nuristani, said 7 million people voted, which would mark about a 50 percent increase over the validated votes from 2009. About 1 million votes in that election — marred by allegations of fraud and vote-rigging — were thrown out.

Mohammed Younas patiently waited to vote for more than an hour in a line that snaked for hundreds of meters through muddy alleyways in western Kabul. He said the election process is a chance for Afghans to fix problems themselves.

“If we see challenges, if we see problems, then we must cast a vote for our future,” Younas said.

Large numbers of women also waited to vote Saturday, though in separate lines from the men. The treatment and subjugation of women has been a long-standing issue in the deeply conservative country.

“Men and women have equal rights, and we all need to work for our rights,” said Karima Hashemi, 37, a teacher at a polling station in eastern Kabul.

The biggest winner may have been the Afghan security forces, on their own to secure a major election for the first time, said Ahmad Majidyar, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It was a major test for the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces, and they did a great job,” he said.

Saturday’s vote was just the beginning of what could be a drawn-out, tortuous process. Counting of ballots began at 5 p.m., when polls closed, and could continue until April 20. Preliminary results won’t be released until April 24, though The Associated Press reported partial results were expected as soon as Sunday.

Because of the crowded field of front-runners, it’s likely no one will win more than 50 percent of the vote, which would trigger a runoff election. The tentative date for that, should it be necessary, is May 28. Then the vote-counting and complaints process would start over again, meaning the political wrangling could last into the summer.

Hamid Karzai has been the only president since the U.S. invaded the country in 2001, knocking out the Taliban government, and Saturday marked the first time ever that an Afghan leader has voted for his potential successor.

The vote follows a spirited campaign that saw hundreds of thousands turn out for massive political rallies throughout the country, with the field narrowing to three front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who was runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 election; Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat and former finance minister; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister who is seen as Karzai’s preferred candidate.

Seeing voters trudge through mud and waterlogged streets en masse on a soggy day, ignoring Taliban threats of mass violence, is a hopeful sign for the future of the country, said Shahla Fareed, an analyst and professor of political science at Kabul University.

“It’s very good news for Afghanistan that the people, not guns, can hand power from one leader to another,” she said.

A Stripes reporter was initially barred from a polling place in Pul-e Charki, a Kabul suburb controlled by warlord and parliament member Mullah Tarakhel Mohammedi that saw massive fraud in the 2009 election. Tarakhel insisted the reporter first meet with him in his compound before being allowed into his madrassa, which was also serving as a polling station. No election observers were in the station.

In some areas, the ballots never arrived because of insecurity. Munsef Bacha, who lives in the restive Uzbin area of Kabul province, said polling stations there never opened.

“There was no election in Uzbin,” he said. “People thought the government might make a big effort to bring the ballots, but they didn’t.”

Some sat out the vote because they are disillusioned by politicians they see as ineffective and corrupt.

“I don’t believe in these candidates,” said Fahim, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. “They just make promises but don’t actually act. If the coming government is like the past government, then I won’t support them.”

In addition to violence, fraud was the biggest worry going into the election. No one expected the election to be fraud-free, but the extent of irregularities is unlikely to be known for some time, as the lengthy process of vote-counting and complaints adjudication has just begun.

For the first time, Afghan election workers had tools such as ink only visible under ultraviolet light as a backup to the traditional fraud-fighting purple ink placed on voters’ fingers to ensure they don’t vote more than once, said Kit Spence, an election monitor with Democracy International.

He said while it is too early to draw any conclusions, initial impressions from the stations he observed in Kabul indicated that the process ran “quite well.”

While the coming days will reveal whether concerns over fraud are fully founded, Spence noted that a high turnout could diminish the impact that any fraudulent ballots have on the results.

All of the major candidates have said they will not accept fraudulent results, and Afghans will be watching to see how the losers react when the votes are tallied.

Abdullah, a leading contender in many polls, said he was hopeful Saturday morning as he cast his own ballot at a Kabul high school.

“There have been problems and issues around the country,” he told Stripes as he left the polling center. “But it is very early still, and we will see in coming days. We tend to be optimistic.”

Washington, too, will be closely monitoring the results to see who their next partner will be.

The winner is unlikely to be announced for some time, but after more than a year of bitter acrimony between Karzai and America, the three front-runners have all said they would sign a long-sought security agreement with the U.S., which would pave the way for a small force of international troops to remain after all combat troops withdraw at the end of the year.

That means a possible thaw in relations with the United States, said Majidyar, of the AEI.

“I think the election and the coming into office of a new president provides a very good opportunity both for Kabul and for Washington to repair their damaged relations,” he said. “The relationship has deteriorated, and as a result of that, the military mission and a lot of governance issues in the country have suffered.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report druzin.heath@stripes.com @Druzin_Stripes smith.josh@stripes.com Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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