Afghan authorities said Monday it was too early to judge the validity of the country's parliamentary ballot despite observers' reports of widespread fraud in the vote that was to help consolidate its shaky democracy.
Also Monday, Britain's military handed the U.S. responsibility for a dangerous district in southern Afghanistan that has been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting involving British troops for the past four years.
Despite Taliban rocket strikes and bombings, Afghans voted on Saturday for a new parliament, the first election since a fraud-tainted presidential ballot last year that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the embattled government.
The independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the observer group that deployed about 7,000 observers to monitor the elections, voiced "serious concerns" about the quality of the elections.
It said in its preliminary report published Monday that the parliamentary vote was marred by ballot-stuffing, proxy voting, underage voting, the use of fake voter identification cards and repeated voting.
The group urged President Hamid Karzai's government to allow an independent investigation into reports of widespread electoral fraud, including intimidation of voters and interference by powerful warlords.
The state electoral commission, however, criticized observer groups and the media for being "quick to imply the electoral process is unsuccessful based on allegations of fraud and misconduct."
"Cases of fraud and misconduct are inevitable in the current security climate," the commission said in a statement. But it pledged full commitment "to working with the Electoral Complaints Commission to eliminate the effect from the final results as far as possible."
Karzai believes it is too early to judge the quality of this weekend's parliamentary vote, his chief spokesman, Waheed Omer, said on Monday.
Omer said that while holding the election in the face of threats of violence from the Taliban and massive logistical challenges had been a great achievement, it was too early to assess its overall success.
"It is early for us to make concrete judgment ... as far as the quality of the election is concerned, and organization, this is too early to judge," Omer told a news conference in Kabul.
"The president and government will make judgment after the relevant organizations have concluded their work," he said, adding that Karzai had canceled a planned trip to the United Nations to follow the vote counting process.
Afghan officials have started gathering and tallying election results in a process that could last weeks if not months.
The country's international backers praised those who voted Saturday and hoped for a democratic result. A repeat of the pervasive fraud at the presidential election a year ago would further erode the standing of Karzai's administration — both at home and abroad — as it struggles against a Taliban insurgency.
Officials said militant attacks on election day killed at least 21 civilians and nine police officers.
The Washington-based National Democratic Institute said in a statement Monday that although violence marred the electoral process, "millions of Afghans turned out to vote ... showing courage and resolve to move their nation toward a more democratic future."
But the group also pointed out that many problems still have not been addressed. These include "a defective voter registration process, barriers to women's participation, and the need to secure the independence from the executive of Afghanistan's two election bodies."
"We did succeed in having an election in almost all over Afghanistan, but that does not mean that we did not have difficulties in terms of arrangements for the elections," Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omar said, adding that it was too early to discuss the quality of the elections.
Nader Nadery, the head of the Afghan observer group, said that those responsible for election irregularities should be prosecuted and that this could not be done without the support of top officials.
"Investigating these irregularities would increase the political credibility of the government," Nadery told The Associated Press. "It would be good for their own reputation."
The group said one of its major concerns was more than 300 instances of intimidation and coercion of voters by local warlords and powerbrokers — some with close ties to Karzai's government — who are seeking to remain in power by having their own candidates run in the elections.
"We had more than 280 cases of direct attacks by the insurgents and we also had 157 cases of warlords committing violence," Nadery said. "Both are dangerous for the future of democracy in this country."
Candidates can submit complaints to the elections fraud watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission. This panel of five people is the final arbiter on fraud allegations, and it was the body that invalidated nearly a third of Karzai's votes last year. The panel is significantly weaker than in the presidential election, when it was dominated by U.N. appointees.
This year, the majority of the panel is Afghan and the entire group has been appointed by the government, making the group potentially more susceptible to pressure from the administration.
Also on Monday, Britain's military handed the U.S. responsibility for northern Sangin district in Helmand province.
British forces arrived in the district in 2006 and have lost more than 100 troops there in fierce fighting with Taliban insurgents— nearly a third of the 337 fatalities it has suffered in Afghanistan since 2001.
NATO said the 40 Commando Royal Marines were being reassigned throughout the center of Helmand, which remains a volatile battleground even though tens of thousands of NATO and Afghan troops moved into the area in February.
"British forces have served in Sangin over the last four years and should be very proud of the achievements they have made in one of the most challenging areas of Afghanistan," said Liam Fox, the British defense secretary.
Under the new NATO deployment plan, which was announced in July, the U.S. will operate mainly in the north and south of Helmand, with British, Danish and Estonian troops working in the heavily populated central areas.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 American general in Afghanistan and the operational chief for the allied forces, said in July the British move was part of his effort to consolidate and better organize forces in Helmand.
Britain, the second largest contributor of international troops after the United States, has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. About 1,200 have already been moved from Sangin into central Helmand province.
The coalition also reported that an international service member died Monday following an insurgent attack in southern Afghanistan. The service member's nationality was not released.