KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghans headed to the polls Saturday in a presidential runoff between two candidates who both promise to improve ties with the West and combat corruption as they confront a powerful Taliban insurgency and preside over the withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of the year.
Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the head of the election commission, officially opened Saturday's runoff at 7 a.m. local time by casting his vote. "My message to our countrymen is that they should come out and cast their vote," he said. "Don't wait for the end of the day. Come out and vote right now."
The runoff is between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank official and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, after neither secured the 50 percent margin needed to win in the first round on April 5.
Security was tightened ahead of the vote, with security forces erecting new checkpoints, searching cars and banning trucks from the streets of the capital after the Taliban warned people to stay away from the polls.
"Today your vote will lead Afghanistan toward a better future, better government and a better life," President Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban in the months after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks.
"Afghanistan is taking another step forward in a transition toward security, progress and stability."
The two candidates, whose differences lie more in personality than in policy, each say they would sign a long-delayed security pact with the United States. That would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country for two more years to conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising the ill-prepared Afghan army and police.
Sayed Qayyum, 58, who waited in line to cast his ballot in a high school in the capital Kabul said he hoped the agreement would be signed.
"I want the (pact) to be signed because I have concerns about future security," he said. "I am afraid if it isn't signed then Afghanistan will face the same fate as Iraq."