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Afghanistan: The Courage to Vote. But Twice?

In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Amina, 32, says she was awoken by the explosion of rocket propelled grenades at the edge of her neighborhood on election day. It was one of at least nine rockets that targeted polling stations around the city. She waited several hours troubled by second thoughts before she finally setting out to vote, her four-year-old daughter in tow. "I was very afraid. But I voted because it's my right, just like men do," she says. "Our democracy is young and we must be brave."

At his polling station, Faiz Muhammad, 44, said he had nothing to lose. Since a landmine destroyed his left during the jihad against the Soviets, he has worked odd-jobs, most recently as a watch repairman in Arghandab, a volatile district north of the city. But the Taliban has suffocated life there, he says, with no respect for his past sacrifice. "We fought to live in peace, and now they are making things impossible, fighting the police. Damn them."

As inspiring as these accounts of voting may be, the fact is Afghans did so in lesser numbers than the last presidential elections. And that is an ominous change, emblematic of the deepening insecurity that plagues much of the country. The climate of fear was measurable in degrees depending on what part of Afghanistan you were in: higher across the Taliban's southern stronghold, where threats of violence in cities like Kandahar were punctuated by sporadic attacks; and less so toward the center and north, the base of President Karzai's top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister.

As election day got underway in the north, the streets were calm in Mazar-i-Sharif, a largely ethnic Tajik city. At a girls school that had been turned into a voting station, Assadullah, 52, casually checked incoming voters on polling day Thursday. The Tajik security guard himself was a partisan of Abdullah Abdullah. In a way, he was following orders. Assadullah had once fought under Mohammad Atta, an ex-mujahideen commander who now governs the province and who has thrown his support behind Abdullah. Meanwhile, Palwasha, 19, a beaming first-time voter, giggled as she declined a request to reveal whom she chose. She was nonetheless grateful for the relative safety of her experience. "I've waited for this day for a long time," she said, holding up an ink-stained finger.

The north was not without militant attacks. Raging gun-battles in Baghlan province resulted in the deaths of at least 21 militants and forced polling stations to close. Overall, however, the south fared worse. Just one voting station opened in southern Helmand province, where Taliban calls for a boycott held sway. In Kandahar, a "night letter" campaign ahead of the vote forewarned residents that their fingers would be cut off if they dared to participate. Many still braved the threat, but observers suggested that voter turnout there was perhaps as much as 40% lower than 2004 elections — a potential setback for President Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun counting on his southern base.

Nevertheless, on Friday, Karzai's campaign called the election for the President, saying he did so well there would be no need for a run off. (Karzai would need to take 50% of the vote plus one in order to win the election outright.) But Abdullah's campaign made similar claims. The announcements appear to be post-vote political maneuvering. The national election commission says that it will not release preliminary official results until Tuesday.

The capital Kabul also saw its share of violence. But many residents had anticipated a more intense day, after suffering through a series of RPG attacks and suicide bombings around the city in the walk-up to the polls. In the early morning of election day, Abdul Karim Safi, 25, a translator for coalition forces, went to the voting station with a group of friends after eating breakfast together. The tension didn't faze him. "Everyone was comfortable," he insists.

But that assessment was not shared by some of his own family members. His cousin, Hewad, 31, stayed at home over concerns about security in the streets. Apathy over the quality of presidential candidates in the field made the decision easier, he says. "But it looks like there were not as many problems like we expected," he explains, adding that he would have backed Karzai, a fellow Pashtun. "Now I really regret that I didn't vote." He may yet get a second chance if the contest goes to a run-off — and the country has to pluck up its courage once more.