Dozens of rocket attacks and menacing threats from the Taliban suppressed turnout in Afghanistan’s presidential election, but it seemed clear on Friday that enough voters had cast ballots that Afghan officials could declare they had thwarted efforts by the insurgents to derail the vote.
The election, conducted Thursday, is the second in the nearly eight years since an American-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power, but the security situation in the country has deteriorated so sharply, and the credibility of the Afghan leadership has sunk so low, that the ability of the government to hold the election at all had been in doubt.
It was still too soon to say how many Afghans had actually cast ballots, yet spokesmen for President Hamid Karzai and his principal challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, each insisted on Friday that their men were leading.
The Karzai spokesman, Homayoun Hamidzada, did not give details but said turnout had been as high as 50 percent in parts of southern Afghanistan where Mr. Karzai has his principal base of support.
“What Karzai’s office is claiming is not correct,” said Sayyid Agha Hussain Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for Mr. Abdullah who was quoted by The Associated Press. He claimed early results showed Mr. Abdullah with 62 percent of the votes, twice as many as Mr. Karzai.
Richard C. Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, met with three of the leading presidential candidates on Friday—President Karzai, Mr. Abdullah, who is the former Foreign Minister, and Ashraf Ghani, the former Finance Minister. He urged all three to wait until official results came in from the election commission before declaring victory or fraud.
American officials expressed displeasure with a statement from Mr. Karzai’s campaign manager Deen Mohammad who insisted that Mr. Karzai won outright and that there would be no need for a run-off.
“I am certain the outcome will be disputed,” Mr. Holbrooke said. “We always knew it would be a disputed election. I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days. For the United States and the international community, we’re going to respect the process.”
The American embassy issued a statement that also urged patience, saying only the election commission could announce the official results. “We’ll be waiting to hear from them. Anything else is just speculation at this point,” the statement read.
Slowed by the insecurity across Afghanistan, declaring a winner could take two weeks or more, although Afghan officials said they would release preliminary results by Saturday. United Nations officials, who were assisting in the process, said official returns could take up to a month if complaints of fraud or irregularities needed to be adjudicated.
American officials were quick to declare the poll a success — worth the expanding commitment of troops and money to an increasingly unpopular and corruption-plagued government.
“The test is going to be in the counting,” Mr. Holbrooke said in an interview after he toured four polling stations in Kabul. “If the will of the electorate is going to be thwarted, it will happen in the counting.”
At the same time, he was clearly pleased that the vote had come off.
“On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, it seems clear that the Taliban utterly failed to disrupt these elections,” he said.
But questions remained about whether the low turnout might affect the legitimacy of the vote, skew the results, and resolve multiple claims of fraud. Early accounts put the total far below the 70 percent who cast votes in the 2004 election.
In some parts of the heavily embattled south, only a trickle of men — and almost no women — defied Taliban threats to bomb polling stations and cut off fingers stained with the indelible ink used by election monitors. But Taliban attacks killed at least 30 people, and those who did vote wavered between resolution and terror.
“I am happy to use my vote, and I hope things will change and peace will knock at our door,” said Zainab, a 40-year-old voter in the southern city of Kandahar.
“Yes, I am scared!” Akhtar Mohmmad, who voted in the southern town of Khan Neshin, said, fearing his purple-stained finger would make him a target.
It remained unclear how a low turnout would affect President Hamid Karzai’s chances of winning re-election in the first round.
But early reports showed more voters in the north than in the volatile south — a pattern that would favor Mr. Abdullah and raise the chances of a runoff if no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote.
Especially in the south, the Taliban made good on their threats to try to disrupt the vote. And even in the places where insurgents failed to stop the voting, they did a good job of putting a scare into everyone who did vote.
In Garmser, a dusty town in the insurgency’s heartland in the southern province of Helmand, the signs of the Taliban’s strength were evident. The bazaar — which now, on the eve of Ramadan, would ordinarily be bustling — was mostly closed, just as the Taliban had demanded.
Inside the polling center, voters and election workers covered their faces whenever they were approached by someone with a camera. They said they were fearful of retribution.
At the only polling center in southern Helmand, set up in the forecourt of a mosque in Khan Neshin, election officials estimated that no more than 300 people voted all day — and not a single woman.
On Tuesday, the Taliban distributed a warning to surrounding villages.
“If we see anyone on the street or outside your house from today until Friday noon, you will be punished severely,” it said.
In Kandahar, witnesses said, the Taliban fired nine rockets near polling stations and hanged two people who had ink-stained fingers.
At a news conference on Thursday at the presidential palace, Mr. Karzai thanked those who braved the Taliban threats, saying there had been 73 attacks in 15 provinces. Nevertheless, 94 percent of the polling centers opened, election officials said.
“I am very grateful to our people, who tolerated the suicide attacks, rockets attacks, and bomb attacks,” Mr. Karzai told journalists.
“Let’s see what the turnout was.” he said. “They came out and voted. That’s good, that’s good.”
Mr. Abdullah said his supporters would lodge complaints of fraud, in particular from the southern province of Kandahar. He called the low turnout in Kabul “unsatisfactory,” but also said the early returns were “hopeful” and offered his own praise.
“Despite all the difficulties, despite all the security problems and other problems, people went to the polls, and they participated in this day,” he said at a news conference in the garden of his home. “And in fact they stood up to those who wanted to take away the people’s right to choose their destiny.”
Two polling stations visited for the count in Kabul showed that the contest might be close. Male voters in one polling station gave Mr. Karzai 45 percent and Mr. Abdullah 38 percent. A women’s polling station next door, where only 41 women voted all day, gave Mr. Karzai 56 percent and Mr. Abdullah 26 percent.
Other candidates made a very small showing, and only one woman in 41 voted for one of the female candidates. In Kandahar, Mr. Karzai’s home city, a selection of four polling stations showed Mr. Karzai with 48 percent and Mr. Abdullah with 18 percent.
The turnout in Kabul, which officials said was lower than in 2004 in the last election, stemmed as much from disillusionment with progress since 2001 as with fear of violence, residents said.
In one area of western Kabul, where four small bombs exploded in the early morning, few people ventured out early. But by midmorning, election officials said, voting was brisk.
“Why should we be scared?” said Nurzia, a mother of four who brought her daughter and nieces to vote. Like many Afghans she has only one name. “We came to have a say in our future and for our children.”
Across town, Muhammad Qasim, 55, a mason, voted after a day at work. “I think it was our duty,” he said. “A change is good.”
But he was accompanied by three young relatives, all in their 20s, none of whom were voting. One, Muhammad Wali, a tailor, said he was not interested. “Last time I voted but I did not see any result,” he said.
Azizullah Ludin, the head of the election commission, said that counting would take place at polling stations, with the results called in to the election headquarters in Kabul and collated in the coming days. But insecurity in some areas made it necessary to transfer some ballot boxes to district centers, officials said.
In the most insecure areas, not even Afghan election monitors could attend the voting, raising concerns of fraud. Even as officials from the Obama administration, who were also on hand to observe the elections, expressed reserved optimism that the voting was transparent, they fretted about whether the ballot counting would be equally so.
President Obama, in a radio interview, said that the election appeared to be successful “despite the Taliban’s effort to disrupt it,” and that “we’ve got to make sure that we are really focused on finishing the job in Afghanistan.”
One candidate, Mr. Ghani, sent an e-mail message to American officials to say that he had reports that his opponents were stuffing ballot boxes. Other presidential candidates were making similar complaints, which competed with reports of sporadic violence throughout the day.
In Kabul, the capital, police fought a gun battle with people suspected of being Taliban infiltrators who took over a house overlooking a police headquarters, killing two of them and capturing a third, as bystanders applauded the officers.
In the southern province of Paktia, two would-be suicide bombers were shot to death before they could detonate their explosives, Zahir Azimi, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said.
In Wardak Province, an hour’s drive south of Kabul, a barrage of six rockets fell just before the polls opened, and three more soon afterward.
A mechanic, Qudratullah, 32, said he encountered Taliban representatives on the road from Narkh District, just over a mile from the provincial capital of Wardak.
“They were standing on the road telling people not to vote,” he said.
“Of course I am scared,” he said. But, like a good number of others, he voted anyway. “We want to see change and a younger generation in a better condition,” Qudratullah said. –NYTimes