MARGARET WARNER: The ballot boxes continued arriving today by helicopter, donkey and truck at counting centers across Afghanistan.
It's expected to take weeks for election officials to count all the votes in the country's first-ever democratic presidential election. Some 100,000 Afghan and international security forces were on high alert Saturday, guarding the polls to thwart attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida forces who vowed to disrupt the process.
Observers reported only a few scattered attacks. There's no official tally of how many of the ten million Afghans who had registered actually voted on Saturday, but U.N. observers estimated turnout at 70 to 80 percent at the 25,000 polling places across the country.
AFGHAN CITIZEN (Translated): We want an election to have a president who would serve the government and the people of the country, and end the war and the misery.
We want a free and an independent way. That is our only wish.
MARGARET WARNER: Women, who accounted for some 40 percent of registered voters, cast their vote separately from the men. Interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai faced 15 challengers.
He needs 51 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off next month. There were some glitches. Some poll officials didn't use indelible ink as instructed to mark voters' thumbs to prevent double voting.
And initially Karzai's opponents demanded the election be nullified over the mix-up.
But today, most of his rivals softened their stand; they said they would respect the results of a United Nations investigation into the irregularities. Karzai insisted the problems weren't serious.
INTERIM PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI, Afghanistan: Well, elections have these matters all over the world. Life will go on.
What matters is that we have now the right to elect our president, and we have done it very well.
MARGARET WARNER: International observers including one U.S. team said the polling in most places they visited seemed fair and free of intimidation.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on this election, we turn to two experts on Afghanistan: Former Ambassador Peter Tomsen was the U.S. Special Envoy on Afghanistan during the first Bush administration.
He's now a fellow at the Afghan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska; and Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan American, is a professor of anthropology at Indiana University. He spent the last three summers in Afghanistan. And welcome, gentlemen.
Ambassador Tomsen, how big a step is this in transforming Afghanistan into a functioning democracy?
PETER TOMSEN: It's a major step. I mean, you saw the mechanics of the election go forward very well in Afghanistan. And the voting, a stunning turnout.
I mean, 10.5 million registered and then a turnout of perhaps 70 to 80 percent, including if the turnout on the women's side matches the number registered, it will be 40 percent women voting in this election.
It follows the Loya Jirga, which chose Hamid Karzai in 2002 as the interim president, and there will be parliamentary elections next year. So I think the democratization process is proceeding very well in Afghanistan.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor, do you see it that way, the democratization process is well under way?
NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, it's far from well under way. It has begun.
If anything, it has begun, but what's really particularly striking is the eagerness of the people of Afghanistan to show their political interest in the future of the country and to join in this election in very large numbers, and their hope is that this will be the beginning of being able to govern their own country in their own community; that it shouldn't stop its electing a president, and then whatever the president wants to do, as often has been the case in third world countries, but rather they should have the opportunity to elect provincial councils, district councils and village councils and then be able to elect in higher and recruit other government officials instead of allowing the elected president to appoint everybody as it always has been the case in the past.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor, explain... you know, there was this mix-up about the ink on the thumbs.
And that was of concern because there have been concerns about potential for fraud; reports that warlords in various regions had gotten people to register multiple times and were planning to vote multiple times.
Why do you think that Karzai's rivals backed down from their criticism of this and agreed to accept this U.N. Commission investigation?
NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, first of all, the indelible ink that was supposed to have been used by officials, the election officials apparently, in some instances, they did not use and they used the wrong ink, which could be washed.
And the motivation for multiple registration may not have been just warlords wanting people to register, but rather there were rumors -- and I was there during the summer -- that if people got multiple cards, they could sell them for cash to bidders on the day of the election. And of course, there may have been other motivations as well.
In some areas, 140 percent of the estimated population in several provinces have over-registered, and that may have been part of the big problem.
The reason why some of the candidates who had threatened to boycott have given in is because there has been a certain amount of pressure, I think, both from the U.N. and from the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul.
And there may have been even the possibility of... at least accusation in the future of making deals with some of these candidates in the future government.
And that may have been the reason why they are doing it, which may cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election in the long run.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador, do you think there's any danger of this election being... the legitimacy of it being called into question because of this?
PETER TOMSEN: I don't think the overall legitimacy will be... for instance, Hamid Karzai was viewed even by the opposition as inevitably the victor, if not in the first round certainly in the second round.
And the Afghans have really not chosen a government, a legitimate government of Afghanistan, since the Soviet invasion over 20 years ago. Now they've had an opportunity. You've seen how they turn out manifesting their desire to choose an Afghan, seen by most Afghans as legitimate.
The parliamentary election and the provincial elections, which Professor Shahrani mentioned are also going to be very important in creating a representative process.
MARGARET WARNER: You said that even his rivals conceded he would... Karzai would win. Was this election about anything issue-wise? Is it a referendum on anything? Does it give Karzai a mandate to do anything, or was it basically an up-or-down popularity vote on Karzai?
PETER TOMSEN: In my opinion, it reflects the Afghan people's desire for peace and security. They are desperate for peace and security. They were disappointed after the Soviets pulled out. They were disappointed after the collapse of the Communist regime in '92.
They've been disappointed, most of them, after the ouster of the Taliban because the great bulk of Afghans are still suffering from security problems in their areas.
They still haven't seen the economic reconstruction that they were promised. And this is going to be a big problem for the international community as well as the new president, Hamid Karzai. They have to deliver.
These people are going to want to see some proceeds from the election process. If they don't see that, they're going to get discouraged.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor, how do you see what this election was about?
NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, I wish this election was about democratic government in the country, and I hope it will be. But my fear is that in many instances in the third world countries, particularly the conflict within countries, soon after conflicts there are promises of elections.
And this election was mandated, by the way, by the Bonn agreement, not Afghanistan's people's wishes, but I think the international community's wish to basically a person that they picked for the leader to be legitimized.
Unfortunately in many third world countries, things that are promised to be interim, transitional, ultimately become permanent, and I hope that this is not one of those cases where something that was promised to be temporary and interim will turn into permanent for decades to come.
MARGARET WARNER: And Professor, let me ask you also about Ambassador Tomsen's point that the people are going to expect even more in the way of security, they're going to expect more in the way of reconstruction aid.
Do the results of this election either, a, strengthen Karzai in a meaningful way or, b, encourage the international community to come forward with more assistance of the nature he needs?
NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, there is no doubt that this election has heightened people's hopes, indeed a lot of the... there have been cases where a voter has said, "I want to mark under the name of a president and then write under it that 'I want bread from you."
Of course, others who may have written "I want security from you" and "I want a lot of other things from you," and that is very important. I think this vote, if it is for President Karzai, it will be really for international community to offer Afghanistan more aid.
And that's what the vote is for -- not necessarily for Karzai, but because the international community is behind him and that they think the international community will give aid to Afghanistan and continue its aid, and that may be the reason why people turned out and also hope that there will be extra money and funding coming.
And I hope that that money will be spent correctly in the reconstruction of the country rather than abused as it has been in the last couple of years.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ambassador, what's your realistic hope or expectation of the international community's reaction here?
PETER TOMSEN: Well, if you look at the last three years, I think the international community has helped on the election side. There's been some progress in terms of elections.
But I think this administration included, has dropped the ball on providing the amount of resources needed for economic development and also building security forces. As of today, there's only 8,000 soldiers that have been trained. That's three years.
This is the same problem in Iraq. There has not been sufficient pre-planning, a strategy developed from the ouster of the Taliban, the military victory until now. And I hope the next administration, whether it's Republican or Democratic, will do a better job.
MARGARET WARNER: And following up on that, what does the relative absence of violence on Saturday say about the strength of the Taliban?
PETER TOMSEN: It says a lot that they don't have a knock-out punch ability or even maybe a body blow, but they still have a very potent following inside Pakistan and also along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
They've mounted attacks, more attacks this year than last year inside Afghanistan, so they remain a big threat.
MARGARET WARNER: And Professor, your view on that, what these elections say about the relative strength of the Taliban and the balance of power with the government in Kabul.
NAZIF SHAHRANI: Well, we're very happy that they were not able to pull any major attacks on the country during this period because indeed elections are inviting more insecurity and threat of that, and the fact that it didn't happen is good news.
But we must not forget that 40- plus election workers have been killed by them, and many other Afghans have suffered during the last several months, pre-election issues.
So we're hoping that they're not as strong as they were assumed to be, and that's all the people of Afghanistan really want.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Shahrani, Ambassador Tomsen, thank you both.
PETER TOMSEN: Thank you.
NAZIF SHAHRANI: Thank you.