The Taliban warned for days that voters' ink-stained fingers would be chopped off to punish them for participating in Afghanistan's August 20 elections. But millions of Afghans took the risk anyway.
One place where the risks were highest was the southern Helmand Province, an area that was under total Taliban control just months ago, and where some voters had to dodge live bullets to get to polling stations despite a months-long push by U.S. forces to establish security.
"People continued voting even when the elections staff had to move the ballot boxes from one corner of the polling station to another because of incoming Taliban bullets," says Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a Pashtun tribal leader who heads the local tribal shura, or council, in the province's Nad Ali district.
"So during the day the ballot boxes were moved many times, but still people expressed their resolve and tenacity and came out to vote."
Unafraid to show an ink-stained voter's finger.
Helmandwal says that when the dust settled, some 7,000 votes had been cast in the vast desert district, despite the fact that the Taliban controls more than 85 percent of Nad Ali.Failure To Stop Voting
Those numbers represent a huge blow to the insurgency, which is seen to lack popular backing but which manages to maintain influence through threats and intimidation.
And the defiance shown by voters in Nad Ali was not unique. While Taliban threats did succeed in keeping vote counts down in many areas, voter turnout in remote districts of some of Afghanistan's most restive provinces is being taken by some observers as an example of how the Taliban ultimately lost its effort to derail the country's elections through violence and intimidation.
Mohammad Yunos Fakur, an Afghan analyst from the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the elections dealt a heavy blow to the "physical and psychological" war perpetrated against the Afghan people by the Taliban.
He adds that in the eyes of Afghans and people across the region, the Taliban's preelection propaganda and accelerated violent campaign on election day both failed.
Fakur says that with the holding of these elections, "we can say that Afghanistan's young state and democracy have emerged successfully from this test and trial. The Taliban has been defeated in the psychological war."...Or Did Afghans Voters Lose?
Wahid Muzda, an independent Kabul-based analyst who lived for years in the capital when it was under Taliban control, doesn't go that far. Pointing to the low turnout in the southern Pashtun heartland, he notes that the Taliban effort did find some success.
Were the Afghan voters the only ones to lose in the election battle?
"It's true that the Taliban were unable to completely disrupt the elections, but they have largely been able to prevent elections that could have delivered a clear result," Muzda says. "When you look at the situation now, the front-runner and his rivals are compelled to strike a compromise."
Muzda claims that the Taliban initially supported the election process by allowing people to register to vote. In some cases, even Taliban members received voter-registration cards.
Muzda says the surge of U.S. troops this spring and summer and talk of taking back Taliban-controlled regions essentially turned the election process into a battleground between the Taliban and the U.S. led coalition.
And in that battle, Muzda says, there were no winners and one clear loser.
"This was a military contest and the election process turned into a battlefield," he says. "In the end neither the Americans nor the Taliban could win it, but the Afghan people were the main losers because they were deprived of freely choosing their leader with a clear majority."
Twenty-six civilians and security-force personnel were killed as a result of election-day attacks, according to Afghan security officials, who also claimed to have prevented dozens of attacks, including potential suicide bombings of polling stations. Seeing Signs Of Progress
But despite the violence, the Afghan government and international observers declared the contest a success.
"There were attacks in 15 Afghan provinces. On the basis of reports from our Interior Ministry there were 73 [violent] incidents," President Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president who was favored to win a second term, said on August 20.
"But nowhere did our people turn their backs on the election, and they participated in increased numbers."
Many independent Afghan experts agree. Kabul University professor Nasrullah Stanekzai closely watched the elections and says that, considering the circumstances, the poll marked a step forward for the country.
"Naturally in a country where fighting continues, where democracy is a new phenomenon, there were serious problems in this process," Stanekzai says. "But my overall prognosis is positive."
Back in Helmand Province, tribal leader Helmandwal echoes popular Afghan sentiment for peace and development -- and hope that people's participation in the democratic exercise will be rewarded.
"Our nation wants to live in peace, so that now-closed school doors can be reopened for our children," he says.
Experts suggest that by participating in the elections, the majority of Afghans exhibited their readiness to take part in the establishment of the new democratic order.
But they warn that the onus will be now on the new Afghan administration and its international partners to deliver that peace and key services, to cement the Afghan people's continued participation in the fledgling political order. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Asmatullah Sarwan, Zarif Nazar and Saliha Khalliqie contributed to this report