Obama hails 'critical' Afghan vote
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
Afghan voters queue at a local polling station in the Jamee mosque of Herat on April 5. AFP PhotoU.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the completion of Afghanistan's presidential vote, set to usher in the country's first democratic transfer of power, saying it was critical to ensure continued international support.
Masses of Afghan voters lined up outside polling stations - with a final turnout election officials say could exceed 50 percent - to pick a successor to President Hamid Karzai for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement that would allow the U.S. to keep around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to train local forces and hunt al-Qaeda, and relations with Washington have dropped to a new low.
Afghans have taken over responsibility for security from U.S.-led forces, and this year the last of the NATO coalition's 51,000 combat troops will pull out, leaving local forces to battle the resilient Taliban insurgency without their help.
Obama, in a statement, congratulated the Afghan voters "on behalf of the American people."
The elections "promise to usher in the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history" and "represent another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country," he said.
"These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as continued international support."
The U.S. president urged election officials to make their formal decision on the outcome fairly, "knowing that the most critical voices on the outcome are those of Afghans themselves."
Obama, who has had tense ties with Karzai, said "we look forward to continuing our partnership with the new government chosen by the Afghan people on the basis of mutual respect and mutual accountability."
"The United States continues to support a sovereign, stable, unified and democratic Afghanistan," he added.
Obama also paid tribute to the Americans who have lost their lives or otherwise made sacrifices in and for Afghanistan.
Since the United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, 2,316 American troops have been killed, according to iCasualties.org, which uses Pentagon data to estimate combat losses.