They were the only voters at a polling station here, and Taliban gunfire could be heard from the voting booth.

But before they cast their ballots for Afghanistan’s next president, the three men had a request. They did not want to dip their fingers in ink — the process used here to identify voters and keep them from casting more than one ballot.

“If the Taliban sees our fingers, they will kill us,” Abdul Balkhi told the employees of the election commission. “During the night they will come to our house, and what will I say?”

Although voter turnout exceeded expectations in many of Afghanistan’s major cities, residents in restive, rural districts such as Nerkh had a tougher calculus to weigh before participating in Saturday’s election. Their dilemma reflects a weakness in the country’s democratic process, which doesn’t capture the preferences of the many Afghans living in the shadow of the Taliban.

In recent days, insurgents have posted letters on nearby mosques and homes warning people not to vote. Outside the polling station, a group of stern local men surveyed the scene, watching those who entered the compound.

Voters in Afghanistan take part in landmark presidential election in defiance of Taliban threats. (Reuters)

“Any of these people could be Taliban spies,” Balkhi said.

Coming to the polls was risky enough, but the purple ink wouldn’t fade for days, making him an even more conspicuous target. The election commission worker managing the polling site tried to make a compromise.

“My friend, we will just put a little ink.”

That’s when Balkhi stormed off.

Across Wardak province, where Nerkh is located, rural polling sites were mostly empty Saturday. And although the day was not as violent as many expected, the Taliban appeared to have succeeded in intimidating voters before polls opened.

For Afghan soldiers who had spent months on a plan to secure the elections — the largest operation in the history of the military — it was an infuriating conclusion. They had managed to protect more than 100 polling sites in Wardak, but in many villages, guards outnumbered voters.

“We did our best to secure the election, but the people don’t want to vote,” Sgt. Ajab Khan said.

The Afghan presidential campaign has narrowed to a field of eight men, who are running to succeed Hamid Karzai.
‘Psychological advantage’

Wardak is one of the country’s most volatile provinces and a focus of both U.S. and Afghan military strategy. Because it borders Kabul, it has become a key passageway for insurgents looking to carry out attacks in the capital. But its rugged terrain makes for natural hideouts and Taliban fighting positions, like the one from which militants fired Saturday near Nerkh.

Despite sporadic firefights, insurgents were clearly outgunned, U.S. military advisers said from a joint command center in Wardak. Yet the Taliban had managed to accomplish its goal of deterring voters in many districts.

“Somehow, they have a huge psychological advantage,” said Capt. Luke Beazley, a member of the U.S. team advising the province’s Afghan combat brigade.

Two hours after the polls opened in the village of Pul-e-Sorkh, only two people had voted. Election observers, soldiers and police officers slumped in their chairs around the polling center, a one-story high school just 50 miles from Kabul.

In the absence of voters, they argued with one another. The manager of the polling site tried to get a soldier to leave his chair next to the voting booth.

“You’re intimidating the voters,” he said.

“I am the only neutral observer here,” the soldier, Sgt. Abdul Manan, said.

The argument subsided when the station’s third voter, a tall man with green eyes and a dark beard, entered the room. The man quietly filled out his ballot and then explained how he had tried but failed to bring other members of his village to the polls.

“I asked them, but they all said no. Maybe 1 percent of the people in this district will vote,” said Fakhir Mohammad, 32, a mechanic. “Everyone else is afraid of the Taliban.”

The Taliban had planted more than 20 IEDs near his property, Mohammad said, and in spite of the risks he was ready to vote for anyone who could finally bring security to Wardak.

It was a glimmer of hope in the country’s democratic process — the kind of success that appeared common in Kabul, as hundreds of thousands of men and women voted in lines that spanned city blocks. But only 70 miles away, the scenes couldn’t have been more divergent. In three Wardak polling stations, not a single woman had voted during the first five hours of polling.

In the 2009 election, widespread voter fraud was uncovered in violent districts such as Nerkh. Insurgent threats typically deter top-quality election observers, just as they do voters.

Election observers arrested

That pattern appeared to be true again Saturday. Four election observers were arrested in Wardak by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security for attempting to perpetrate fraud, said Asadullah, who was in charge of the directorate’s election-day operations in the province and, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

The only election observers who could be found in much of Wardak were men affiliated with local and national candidates. In theory, they were supposed to serve as a check on one another, preventing their competitors from stuffing ballot boxes. But most of the observers appeared more interested in getting paid.

“They said they would pay us, but we don’t know when the money will come,” said Khaseb Sahak, an observer working for Abdullah Abdullah, one of the presidential candidates.

Other observers were open about their lack of allegiance to the campaigns that hired them.

“I am an observer for Dr. Rassoul, but I do not know if I will vote for him. I’m still making up my mind,” Khalaluddin said, referring to candidate Zalmay Rassoul.

But if Wardak’s electoral process sometimes seemed backward, it also yielded an occasional breakthrough.

As Abdul Balkhi prepared to leave the polling center in Nerkh, an official remembered that the election commission had an alternative to the purple ink. A clear liquid could be sprayed on voters’ fingers, producing a mark visible only when held to a black light. It was meant specifically for people like Balkhi, who worried that the ink would make them Taliban targets.

Balkhi let the man spray the liquid on his finger. He filled out a ballot and slipped it into the box. He looked at his hand, which showed no sign that he had voted, and smiled.

“I’m glad I voted,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have done it at the cost of my life.”

Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.