KABUL: Afghanistan heads to the polls Saturday to choose a new president after Hamid Karzai´s 13-year reign and a US-led military campaign which have radically changed the country but failed to defeat the Taliban.
The first round of the election comes as the final 53,000 NATO combat troops head home this year, leaving Afghan forces to fight the fierce insurgency that erupted after the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
Militant attacks and electoral fraud are the main threats to the vote, which will be Afghanistan´s first-ever democratic transfer of power, as Karzai steps down after serving the maximum two terms in office.
A repeat of the violence and massive cheating that marred Karzai´s re-election in 2009 would undermine claims that a decade of coalition fighting and billions of dollars of aid have helped establish a functioning state.
There is still no clear front-runner among the three leading candidates — raising the prospect of a disputed result and instability as well as a fresh start after Karzai´s long and mercurial rule.
“There is going to be no neutral person to say who has committed fraud and who hasn´t. The international presence has been hugely reduced,” veteran author and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid told AFP.”And the withdrawal of American troops at this point in time is really a disaster because it means the entire security burden falls on the Afghans.”