It may take weeks to determine the ultimate winner of Afghanistan's presidential election, but one camp has already staked an increasingly credible claim to victory: the Taliban.
Taliban fighters say they successfully sabotaged the vote without sending in a single suicide bomber. The mere threat of violence suppressed turnout enough to cast doubt on the credibility of the vote, which is being increasingly undermined by allegations of fraud.
"It's like the election didn't happen at all," said one senior Taliban commander, who was instrumental in planning the insurgents' strategy after the their leader, Mullah Omar, ordered the elections disrupted.
He spoke to The Globe And Mail by satellite phone after meeting with a dozen other senior militant commanders in a region bordering Pakistan to discuss the election.
"We have succeeded in our plan. Even in Kandahar city, most of the people were sitting in their houses. We showed the government could not do a good election," said the commander, who spoke on condition his name not be published.
His claims were echoed by other, less senior Taliban fighters interviewed by The Globe in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where turnout was particularly low - 10 per cent in some districts - and allegations of fraud are most pronounced.
While the United Nations, American, Canadian and Afghan officials have praised the vote as a success, the Taliban's new declarations of victory are finding growing resonance in official circles.
Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province, which has been the focus of the Canadian Forces' fight against the insurgency and the stronghold of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, did not dismiss the Taliban's claim of triumph. "The election was complicated," he said.
"Did the Taliban succeed? I don't know. It's hard to tell. What is success? It is different from different perspectives," Mr. Wesa said, his reluctance to strike down the idea of a Taliban win suggesting the notion had permeated Mr. Karzai's inner circle.
"The internationals have tried to portray [elections]as a defeat for the insurgency. They couldn't pull off anything big, but they did spread fear all across the country," said a Western analyst, who has been based in Afghanistan for more than five years.
"They did manage to give a sense that anything was possible. They did make it seem like they were quite a lot bigger than they were. I'd score it as a win for them," the analyst said.
At least 30 people died on election day, including two people who were hanged from a tree near the Arghandab River. At least two others had their right index fingers cut off after they voted. Dozens of rockets fell on Kandahar and Helmand province.
However, the election was largely free of the massive scale of violence threatened by the Taliban, who promised to disrupt it at all costs.
The credibility of the Taliban's claims of success stand in stark contrast to the consensus that emerged in the aftermath of Afghanistan's first presidential election in 2004, when the overwhelming verdict among Afghan officials and Western diplomats was that a strong show of democracy had decisively weakened the insurgency.
At that time, Mr. Karzai's victory seemed assured early on in the vote count. His main challenger, Yunis Qanooni, who conceded defeat before the final tally was complete, garnered only 16 per cent of the vote to Mr. Karzai's 55 per cent. Voter turnout topped 70 per cent.
Now, more than a week after Afghanistan's second presidential election, the country remains in political drift.
The vote, which was meant to be unifying, is proving inconclusive, with partial results suggesting an October runoff between Mr. Karzai and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah. They remain bitterly divided.
Yesterday, Afghanistan's electoral complaints commission revealed it had received 1,740 allegations of election-day fraud.
Two hundred and seventy of those are considered high priority, with the potential to have a direct impact on the outcome of the vote.
The latest figures show Mr. Karzai with 44.8 per cent of the vote and Dr. Abdullah with 35.1 per cent, figures that could force a runoff if neither candidate wins more than 50-per-cent support.
According to some estimates, turnout could have been as low as 30 to 35 per cent.
Mullah Ahmad, a Taliban commander who claims to have 100 fighters in Wardak province, said "nobody succeeded to come out and vote. This election was only for the government."
"Their election was a very big failure," said the senior Taliban commander who spoke to The Globe.
He said his fighters never intended to follow through on threats outlined in "night letters" - leaflets warning death and dismemberment to would-be voters.
"We are not targeting Afghan civilians. We are targeting foreign fighters," the Taliban commander said, an oft-repeated pledge meant to win the support of Afghan civilians, who have suffered high casualties in insurgent attacks.
He boasted his fighters spoiled dozens of ballot boxes, dumping them in the Helmand and Arghandab rivers. In one instance, a ballot box was shot from the hands of an election official as he was boarding a helicopter.
"We were very powerful in the villages. In many districts, in Panjwai and Maywand and Zahri, nobody could go to the polling stations. There were only staff, and they filled the ballot boxes," he said.
There is no way of verifying the commander's claims, however his accounts of certain incidents in specific districts matched those of some independent observers.
They also provide a more nuanced picture than that initially offered by Western officials, including Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, Canada's top soldier in Kandahar. Gen. Vance, in a press conference after the polls closed, said that the Taliban were "unsuccessful across the board," and the insurgents were "stopped cold."
Some analysts dismiss the Taliban's claims to victory as overblown.
Michael Semple, a former European Union official in Afghanistan who was accused of spying and expelled two years ago by the Karzai government, said the Taliban declarations were premature "simply because we don't know if the [election]results are going to stick yet."
"The Taliban would benefit if there is a legitimacy crisis, but if the electoral commission can deliver a clean vote, on balance, that is much more important than a high turnout, isn't it?" Mr. Semple said, speaking from Ireland.
Mr. Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, suggested Tuesday's truck bomb in Kandahar city that killed more than 40 people was a sign that the Taliban were struggling.
"They couldn't strike on election day, so they are striking now, slaughtering innocent people in the street," Mr. Wesa said. The Taliban have denied responsibility for the explosion, though it bears the hallmarks of previous attacks.
As Afghanistan awaits the outcome of the vote that will also shape international efforts to stabilize the country, the Taliban are coming up with a new strategy of their own.
"We have not yet decided how we will deal with this new government," the Taliban commander said.
"We will hold a shura to decide in one or two months, then we will find a new way to push the foreigners out," he said.Report Typo/Error