KABUL, Afghanistan – After the last vote is cast in the most remote of mountain hamlets, Afghanistan's (search) first direct presidential election still faces a major hurdle: counting the ballots.
Election officials and international observers acknowledge that inexperienced staff, inaccessible terrain and the chaos of a nation emerging from a quarter-century of war will make tallying the returns after Saturday's vote a daunting challenge.
No results are expected until late Sunday or early Monday, and it could take at least two weeks for anything approaching a final count to come in.
"We simply don't know how many days it will take," said Farooq Wardak, head of administration for the Joint Electoral Management Body (search), the U.N.-Afghan organization overseeing the vote.
Interim President Hamid Karzai (search) seems assured of coming in first. But even token support for each of his 15 challengers could deprive him of the 50 percent plus one necessary to avoid a second round.
Determining whether he has secured a majority could transform even a clear victory into a cliffhanger. A run-off could delay the final outcome until late November.
Sealed ballot boxes will be taken from the 4,800 polling centers around the country to eight regional headquarters to be counted.
In the remote northeast, organizers have organized donkey caravans to haul the boxes over mountain tracks. In the insurgency-plagued south, helicopters will ferry the results to a heavily guarded counting center at a sports stadium in Kandahar, the Taliban's former capital.
The votes of some 740,000 registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and another 400,000 to 600,000 eligible voters in Iran, will be brought to the capital, Kabul.
Problems are inevitable.
Most of the thousands of people who have been assembled to count the ballots have received only a few hours of training. In a nation where most people are illiterate, they will be asked to interpret ballots in which voters have relied on photographs of the candidates or electoral symbols to decide which box to check.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union have both sent small observer missions to Afghanistan to monitor the vote, but neither says it is here to pass judgment, lowering the bar on expectations.
"We are not going to say whether it is free and fair, or free, fair and flawed or whatever," said Ambassador Robert Barry, the head of the OSCE team. "If you look at the regulations for this election, and if you were to examine the implementation of every one of these regulations, it is completely impossible (that they will be met) because the regulations are much too demanding for a country at this stage of the training and development of election administrators."
There will be no exit polling on election day, partly because of the forbidding terrain, and partly out of fear that such an exercise might be intimidating to Afghans with no experience at democracy.
"We've discouraged exit polls because we were concerned how Afghans might perceive someone coming up to them and asking them how they voted right after they walk out of the booth," a U.S. official in Kabul told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Many Afghans still doubt their vote will be secret, stoking fear of retribution if they do not select the candidate favored by regional strongmen or tribal elders.
Grant Kippen, country director for the National Democratic Institute, said making projections based on early returns might also be problematic, given that Afghanistan's population is fractured both ethnically and regionally.
Knowing the results in the heavily Pashtun south, where Karzai enjoys wide support, will shed no light on how he will fair in north, where ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks prevail.
Election officials are uncertain whether to wait until every vote is counted to declare a winner. Wardak said the election might be called once the number of outstanding ballots is too small to affect the outcome.
Anti-government militants, who have already killed at least a dozen election workers and who have vowed fresh attacks on polling day, could cause further delays, for instance by destroying ballots.
"We're used to getting immediate gratification and immediate results in the West, but we're just going to have to sit back and wait here and be patient," Kippen said. "That's just the way it is going to be in Afghanistan."