KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – From women in burqas in former Taliban strongholds to impoverished desert nomads, Afghans embraced the chance to vote in the final formal step toward democracy. But the country still faces myriad threats, from a reinvigorated insurgency to rampant drug production and power-hungry warlords.

Turnout for Sunday’s legislative elections was lower than many hoped, taking a little of the luster off the historic day.

Still, the rebels’ failure to make good on threats to subvert the vote was a major boost to efforts to bring peace nearly four years after U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power.

“For the millions of Afghans who turned out to vote, this was a significant … advance on the road to democracy,” U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said in Kabul. “Four years ago, the Taliban were here and women were being stoned to death … and now you have women running polling centers and women voting.”

He cautioned that the vote should not be seen as a signal that the United States and other countries can turn their back on Afghanistan and start to bring home many of the 20,000 soldiers in the American-led coalition and 11,000 NATO peacekeepers.

“The international community is going to have to stay involved for a long time,” Neumann said.

On Monday, heavily guarded convoys hauled ballots across Afghanistan’s rugged terrain to counting centers. Complete provisional results are expected by early October, and officials hope to have certified results by Oct. 22.

Al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri – who is thought to be hiding along the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border – criticized the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s weekend elections in a tape broadcast Monday by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV, saying they took place under the control of the “lords of war.”

Washington and other governments have poured in billions of dollars to foster a civic system after a quarter-century of conflict and ensure Afghanistan is never again a staging post for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

But a wave of insurgent attacks that has killed more than 1,200 people in the six months leading up to the ballot underlines the threat that remains.

Although the Taliban failed to do anything spectacular to disrupt voting, there are no signs their rebellion is waning.

Many people had hoped a massive voter turnout would marginalize the insurgents by demonstrating public support for an elected government.

Security fears have been further inflamed by the refusal of some warlords responsible for much of the bloodshed in the civil war in the 1990s to demobilize their militias and disarm. A few of these regional strongmen were permitted to run in the elections.

A booming business in growing opium poppies is seen as a major threat. Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the world’s supply, sparking warnings that it could become a “narco-state.”

Fighting near-universal poverty is another urgent challenge. Frustrations have grown over the pace of reconstruction, with many regions still lacking roads, schools and clinics.

Sarah Lister, head of the Afghan Research Evaluation Unit, an independent Kabul-based research group, said people could become disillusioned with democracy if they don’t see obvious progress.

“We need people to stay involved in the democratic process, not reject it,” she said. “If people feel they are not getting their needs met by the process, it could be a problem for stability.”

She said the low initial voter turnout figures underscore the need for President Hamid Karzai, international donors and the new parliament to act quickly to fix pressing problems.

Chief election officer Peter Erben said reports from about one-third of the polling stations suggested about 6 million people cast ballots, about half of those who registered.

The figure is significantly lower than the 70 percent recorded when Karzai won a euphoric presidential election in October.

But Erben was upbeat, saying it compared well to elections in other postwar countries. He joined Western observers in saying there no was no evidence of major irregularities.

“Afghanistan should be satisfied with the turnout,” Erben said.

AP-ES-09-19-05 1806EDT


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