KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Foreign election experts
yesterday studied complaints from candidates in Afghanistan’s
first-ever presidential election, setting aside suspect ballot
boxes and further delaying the vote count.

Laura Wong
Afghan election officials sort presidential election ballots at a counting center in Kabul yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

Despite the problems, a top U.S. general said Saturday’s
vote “spells the end” of the rule of the gun in a
country still controlled by warlords.

With ballot boxes pouring in by road, air and even donkey from
across the rugged and impoverished land, officials had forecast
that the counting could begin on yesterday.

But a three-person panel set up to investigate alleged
irregularities said yesterday they were still examining 43
objections made by some opponents of President Hamid Karzai and the
tallying cannot start until all the complaints are reviewed.

Craig Jenness, a Canadian lawyer who is one of the panelists,
said the body had recommended that ballot boxes from 10 sites in
four provinces be isolated.

Jenness did not say when the review would be complete but said
counting would begin “very quickly” afterward.

He said candidates had until today to file additional
complaints, but that vote-counting would not be held up
further.

Karzai is widely tipped to secure a clear victory over the 15
other candidates when final results are announced toward the end of
the month.

The establishment of the panel appeased Karzai’s
opponents, who had threatened to reject the result.

Election staff were supposed to mark voters’ left thumbs
with indelible ink, but some apparently used pens meant for marking
the ballots or ink meant for stamping them instead.

The wrong ink was easily washed off, opening the way to claims
of multiple voting. Election organizers had issued 10.5 million
registration cards, far more than expected, fueling concern that
some people had obtained several.

A spokesman for ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq said he
also had filed written complaints to the panel about polling
stations running out of ballot papers and a dearth of voting
centers in west Kabul, where many Hazaras live.

Meanwhile, eight people stranded for 24 hours since a helicopter
sent to retrieve ballots crash-landed at high altitude in
northeastern Afghanistan were rescued today, U.N. spokesman Manoel
de Almeida e Silva said.

The rescue helicopter was reassigned to pick up ballots from
remote Badakhshan province, though it was unclear when the
collection would be complete.

While the complaints from many candidates have raised questions
about the legitimacy of the eventual outcome, the election has been
a clear triumph for the massive security operation mounted to
protect it from militant attack.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan,
said the lack of major violence and the enthusiastic turnout were a
“resounding defeat” for Taliban and al-Qaida
rebels.

“This turning point spells the end of more than two
decades of the rule of the gun in this nation and confirms the
bright hope of all the Afghan people in a democratic future
centered on the rule of law,” he told reporters in Kabul.

The upbeat assessment came as NATO defense ministers met in
Romania to consider issues including merging U.S.-led forces in
Afghanistan with the alliance’s separate contingent.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns suggested Tuesday
that the alliance could take over the U.S.-led military mission in
Afghanistan as early as 2005, prompting Germany’s defense
minister to quickly reject the proposal.

Barno, who commands 18,000 mainly American troops here, said the
timeline for such a merger was “uncertain,” but
forecast that U.S. forces would play a “very, very large role
and have a large percentage” of any combined force.

NATO is already expected to extend its 9,000-strong Afghan
operation, which is focused on bolstering the Afghan government and
its re-emerging national security forces, from the capital and the
north to the west next year.

But with much of the country still in the grip of warlords and
about 1,000 people killed in political violence so far this year,
alliance leaders have struggled to persuade member nations to
commit extra troops.

Barno wouldn’t say when the number of U.S.-led troops
might drop.

Combat operations would need to continue against anti-government
militants, he said, warning of a possible “spike” in
violence during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

“Coalition forces for the foreseeable future will
certainly maintain their role here,” he said.

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