Afghans defy Taliban threat to vote in droves

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Afghan men line up for the registration process before they cast their votes at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. The vote will decide who will replace President Hamid Karzai, who is barred constitutionally from seeking a third term. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

Afghan men line up for the registration process before they cast their votes at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. The vote will decide who will replace President Hamid Karzai, who is barred constitutionally from seeking a third term. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

An Afghan woman dips her finger into ink before casting his vote at a polling station in Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center, walks to the ballot boxes before he casts his vote at Amani high school, near the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

An Afghan woman casts her vote at a polling station in Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

An Afghan woman, center, walks to cast her ballot at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats and rain Saturday, underscoring their enormous expectations from an election that comes as the country’s wobbly government prepares to face down a ferocious insurgency largely on its own.

With combat forces from the U.S.-led coalition winding down a 13-year presence and the mercurial Hamid Karzai stepping aside, the country’s new leader will find an altered landscape as he replaces the only president Afghans have known since the Taliban were ousted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But for some progress, particularly with women’s rights, the country’s situation is inauspicious, especially with its poor security and battered economy. Yet despite spiraling carnage and grave disappointments, Afghans by the millions crowded mosque courtyards and lined up at schools to vote, telling a war-weary world they want their voices heard.

Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul. “I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote,” she said. “I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election.”

Partial results could come as early as Sunday, but final results were not expected for a week or more.

International combat troops are supposed to depart by the end of the year, leaving Afghan security forces — not completely battle-tested and plagued with insurgents even among their ranks — to fight alone against what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taliban to regain power.

A security agreement with the United States would allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country to continue training security forces after 2014. Karzai — perhaps trying to shake off his image as a creation of the Americans — has refused to sign it, but all eight presidential candidates say they will.

In general, there do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among the front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. A runoff is widely expected since none is likely to get the majority needed for an outright victory.

All eight also preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security, while they do differ on other issues such as the country’s border dispute with Pakistan.

The runup to the election was troubling: the Islamic radicals of the Taliban, reviled by many but still popular in some areas, view the entire enterprise as the work of outsiders and infidels, and they vowed to disrupt it by targeting polling centers and election workers.

To drive home the threat, insurgents in recent weeks stepped up shootings and bombings in the heart of Kabul to show they are capable of striking even in highly secured areas. A restaurant popular with foreigners and one of the capital’s main hotels were hit, killing many. Suicide bombers struck relentlessly.

On Friday, veteran Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and AP reporter Kathy Gannon was wounded when a local policeman opened fire as they sat in their car on the outskirts of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots — apparent victims of an “insider attack” in which the very people tasked with protection

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