Under cover of darkness, hours after polls closed in Afghanistan, many voters wonder if their votes today will make a difference in the future of the war-torn country.
"I have no hope in the results of this election," former member of parliament Malalai Joya told me from a safe house in Kabul where she is staying tonight. The ousted parliamentarian who has been an inspiration to democracy advocates in the country said she herself could not risk going outside ("even in a burqa") to vote but that she speaks for many thousands of "democracy-loving" Afghans: "In a country ruled by warlords, occupation forces, Taliban terrorists, drug money, and guns, no one can expect a legitimate or fair vote." She cited the close linkages to drug lords and warlords of Hamid Karzai and leading candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani as reason for her pessimism.
Non-governmental organizations and relief agencies doing work in Afghanistan also were reluctant to embrace election optimism following the close of polls today. According to an Oxfam report released today, one-third of Afghans are at risk of hunger-despite overall expenditure of $7 million a day by the United States and other donor nations for humanitarian aid.
The election of a new government "must be accompanied by major reforms in governance and aid effectiveness," said the report, which charged that much of the money given by foreign governments "is ineffective, uncoordinated, or wasteful, and doesn't reach ordinary Afghans."
Taliban fighters, who also confiscate much of the aid, today used threats to scare voters from the polls, particularly in the south where its control is strongest. Officials say insurgents killed 26 Afghans in scattered attacks but overall failed to disrupt the vote.
The counting of millions of votes began when the polls finally closed after 10 hours of voting-including a last-minute, one-hour extension-and the results will not be known for several days. Election officials believe about 40 to 50 percent of the country's 15 million registered voters cast ballots, a far lower turnout than the 70 percent who cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election. Some predicted that the low turnout in the south could harm incumbent President Karzai, while stronger turnout evidenced in the north could boost his challenger, Abdullah.
Insurgent attacks closed 14 polling sites in Baghlan province, according to The Associated Press, and also killed the police chief. Five Afghan troops died in eastern Khost province. In Helmand, part of the troubled southern region, more than 20 rockets landed in the capital, Lashkar Gah, and one that fell near a line of voters killed a child.