A bigger-than-expected turnout in Afghanistan’s presidential election and the Taliban’s failure to significantly disrupt the vote have raised questions about the capacity of the insurgents to tip the country back into chaos as foreign troops head home.
Last Friday, on the eve of the election, Anja Niedringhaus, a German Associated Press photojournalist, was killed, and her Canadian colleague, Kathy Gannon, wounded after they were shot by a policeman in eastern Afghanistan. Gannon is now stable and recovering in hospital.
The attack took place in the town of Khost, near the border with Pakistan, as the journalists were travelling in a convoy of vehicles carrying election workers and ballots to outlying areas in Tani district. The area is close to Pakistan’s lawless North Waziristan region, where many al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants are based.
The two had arrived in a heavily guarded district compound. As they sat in car, waiting for the convoy to move off, a policeman walked up to the car, yelled “Allahu Akbar” – God is Great – and opened fire with his AK-47 rifle.
He then surrendered to the other police and was arrested.
The Taliban claimed that they staged more than 1,000 attacks and killed dozens during Saturday’s election day.
The government said that at least 23 people were killed on election day and the day day - mostly soldiers and police officers.
Three other people were killed on Sunday, including at least one election worker, when a government vehicle struck a roadside bomb in northern Kunduz province.
The Taliban has branded the poll a United States-backed deception of the Afghan people, although security officials said this was a gross exaggeration.
There were dozens of minor roadside bombs, and attacks on polling stations, police and voters during the day. But the overall level of violence was much lower than the Taliban had threatened to unleash on the country.
Despite the dangers people faced at polling stations, nearly 60 per cent of the 12 million people eligible to vote turned out.
This was a measure of the population’s determination to have a say in their country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, as President Hamid Karzai prepares to stand down after 12 years in power.
“This is how people vote to say death to the Taliban,” one Afghan wrote on Twitter, posting a photograph that showed his friends holding up one finger – stained with ink to show they had voted – in a gesture of defiance.
"I congratulate all Afghans for this successful and historic election," election secretary Zia-ur-Rahman said after counting had begun. "People participated beyond our expectations."
Because of Afghanistan's rugged terrain it will take six weeks for results to come in and a final result to be declared in the race to succeed Karzai.
Even then, one of the eight candidates will have to score more than 50 per cent of the vote to avoid facing a run-off with his nearest rival.
On Sunday there was a palpable sense in Kabul, the capital, that perhaps greater stability is within reach after 13 years of strife since the Taliban’s hardline Islamist regime was forced out of power in late 2001. The insurgency has claimed the lives of at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands more security forces.
“[The election] was my dream come true,” said Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament. “That was a fantastic slap in the face of the enemy of Afghanistan – a big punch in the face of those who believe Afghanistan is not ready for democracy.”
However, it may be too early to conclude from the Taliban’s failure to disrupt the election that it is now on a backfoot.
More than 350,000 security forces were deployed for the vote, and rings of checkpoints and roadblocks around the capital, Kabul, may well have thwarted Taliban plans to target voters and polling stations.
It is possible that the Taliban deliberately chose to lat low to give the impression of improving security in order to hasten the exit of US troops and gain more ground later.
They certainly managed to launch a wave of spectacular attacks in the run-up to the vote.
The killing of Niedringhaus came only weeks after an Afghan journalist with the Agence France-Presse news agency was killed together with eight other people after Taliban gunmen opened fire inside a luxury hotel in the centre of the capital, Kabul.
Also in March, a gunman shot dead Swedish journalist Nils Horner, 51, outside a restaurant in Kabul.
They remain a formidable force: estimates of the number of Taliban fighters, who are mostly based in lawless southern and eastern areas of the country, range up to 30,000.
Borhan Osman, of the independent Afghan Analysts Network, says that, for now, the insurgency does not appear to be winning, though the Taliban might argue it has already exhausted the US’ will to fight.
In a report published late last month Osman wrote that support for the Taliban was fading in regions where they had previously counted on help from villagers, and they appeared to lack the strength to besiege major towns or engage in frontal battles.
“So far, they have rather focused efforts on hit-and-run attacks, among other asymmetric tactics, which can bleed the enemy but usually not enough to knock it down,” Osman said.
There could, though, be an opportunity for the Taliban to reassert itself, if – as happened in 2009 – the election is marred by fraud and rigging, and Afghans feel cheated of a credible result.
Early reports would suggest that this election was far smoother than the last one. Still, there were many instances of ballot-stuffing and attempts to vote with fake cards on Saturday.
About 14 per cent of polling centres did not open, most of them in the southeast and southern provinces where the Taliban presence is strongest, as the army was unable to provide security due to the high risks of attack.
There is also a risk that if a final result is delayed for several months – a strong possibility if there has to be a run-off between the top two candidates – this would leave a political vacuum that the Taliban could exploit.
“An ambiguous electoral outcome breeds uncertainty and confusion, which can grow the gap between the government and its citizens and leave a bigger opening for the Taliban to cause trouble,” said Diplai Mukhopadhyay, an Afghanistan expert at Columbia University in New York.
In 2003, the then-US. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld suggested that the war in Afghanistan was in a “clean-up phase”.
However, it was soon clear that the back of the insurgency was far from broken and the Taliban bounced back.
Indeed, Taliban attacks were muted during Afghanistan’s first election in 2004, when Karzai obtained a mandate for a presidency he had held on an interim basis since 2002. By early 2005, US generals were saying that the militants were on the run, only to regret their optimism a short while later as casualties mounted.
Karzai has repeatedly accused neighbouring Pakistan of being behind Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and impeding efforts by his government to thrash out a peace deal with the insurgents.
Yet Islamabad denies that it aids insurgents fighting Kabul and says it has its hands full battling the Pakistan Taliban. But it is widely believed that the shadowy intelligence arm of Pakistan’s military has long had a relationship with militant groups, including those active in Afghanistan.
Carlotta Gall, a journalist who reported from the region for many years, has argued in a just-published book that the US has been fighting the wrong enemy, and that it is in Pakistan where the training and funding of the Taliban and support of the al Qaeda network has occurred.
Underlining the threat from across the border, military chiefs and security officials in the region told Reuters last month that the Taliban from both countries had secretly agreed to focus on carrying out operations in Afghanistan.