Most voters cast their ballots without difficulty and went home, unaware of the candidates' protest until long afterward. Many voters appeared to find the first-time experience confusing and a little intimidating, but election workers carefully and repeatedly explained the procedure, and Afghans of all ages seemed eager and proud to be taking part.
"This is something Afghans have wished for deeply, and for a long time," said Gulab Niakzai, 47, a colonel in the new national army who had just voted at a high school in Kargah, a district west of Kabul. His wife Shirin, dressed in tailored black, smiled at his side.
In the village of Dehnow, an hour south of Kabul, a local election worker marks the thumb of a voter to show that he has voted. Complaints arose after election workers marked voters with regular ink instead of indelible ink.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
"We want a clean government and an honest, patriotic president," Niakzai said. "Every Afghan should think very carefully about this decision, because we are building a future for our children."
On a windy highway in Wardak province, south of the capital, a cluster of men and women in billowing blue veils trudged along with their children, heading toward a distant polling station. Rassool Dad, 25, a mason who recently brought his family back from a long exile in Iran, carried his 9-month-old son in his arms.
"We are going to elect our president," Dad said proudly. "We want to stop the warlords and the bloodshed. We heard that the Taliban might attack polling stations, but if we were afraid, we wouldn't come out of our houses."
Occasional problems with logistics and staffing at polling places, especially the complicated arrangements allowing women to vote separately, also seemed to be handled good-naturedly. In De Afghanan, a village in Wardak, a local Muslim cleric had offered his front parlor as a women's voting site, but several hours after the men's polling station opened, no female election workers had arrived from Kabul.
"We called the U.N. several times, but no one has come," said Mahmad Aziz, 60, the local election supervisor. Finally he designated a group of male elders to act as go-betweens so local women could vote without being seen.
"We want everyone to be able to vote freely," he said. "We took an oath that none of us would put pressure on anyone."
Around him, a long line of men squeezed into a dark stone classroom, clutching their voter registration cards. One election worker inked their thumbs and punched a hole in their cards. Another showed them the long ballot with 18 names and tiny photographs. After the voter emerged from a small booth covered in gingham cloth, another worker took each ballot and stuffed it into a white plastic box.
Most voters said they understood that their ballot was secret, and many were shy or cagey about expressing their preference after voting. But in many places, people said they planned to vote for Karzai, saying he was an honest man and had worked hard for the country.
Despite the careful procedures, opposition candidates said there was ample room for fraud, especially because so many voters' thumbs were not marked with indelible ink. They alleged that large numbers of people had voted several times and that government officials had pressured some to vote for Karzai.
"We have received reports of people voting 10 and 15 times," said Homayoun Shah Assefy, a lawyer and presidential candidate. "Under these conditions, elections have no meaning. We do not want a boycott, we want a postponement, and we want better supervision."
To some extent, the suspicion of multiple voting was exacerbated by the success of the voter registration drive. Initially, experts predicted 7 million to 8 million people would register, but the final number was more than 10.5 million. Critics said many people had registered several times, but international and Afghan officials said there was little that could be done about it.