While Taliban attacks killed at least 14 people across Afghanistan, international observers and top Afghan officials praised the imperfect election as a tentative sign of progress one year after widespread fraud tainted Afghanistan's presidential vote.

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Voter discontent, calculated attempts to rig the vote and widespread Taliban intimidation Saturday marred Afghanistan’s parliamentary election, considered a bellwether for America’s troubled campaign to stabilize the war-weary nation.

While Taliban attacks killed at least 14 people across Afghanistan, international observers and top Afghan officials praised the imperfect election as a tentative sign of progress one year after widespread fraud tainted Afghanistan’s presidential vote.

However, amid reports of widespread voter fraud, the nation’s leading election-watchdog group said it had “serious concerns about the quality” of the election and called on the country’s leaders to investigate.

Many disillusioned Afghans ignored President Hamid Karzai’s plea to take part and said their political system isn’t working.

“This has a negative impact on democracy,” said Mir Usman, an election observer for one of the about 2,500 Afghan politicians taking part in the vote to select 249 lawmakers for the country’s largely ineffectual lower house of parliament.

Major polling places in key parts of the country appeared empty throughout the day.

Elections officials estimated 3.6 million Afghans took part in the election. Nearly 6 million ballots were cast in last year’s more significant presidential election, out of 17 million registered voters.

Afghanistan’s Free and Fair Election Foundation, an independent watchdog group that sent 7,000 observers to polling sites around the nation, said there had been serious security problems at nearly 400 of the country’s 5,300 polling places that were open.

The group’s observers reported ballot stuffing in most provinces and “a worrying number of instances” of government officials interfering with voting to try to help their allies. Polling centers were blown up in three provinces and taken over by militants in three others, the group said.

Citing early reports from his staff and observers around the country, chief U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura called the country’s second parliamentary vote a “mixed picture.”

“It was a rough day from a security point of view,” he said four hours after polls closed.

De Mistura said it would take days to ascertain the scope of fraud that took place.

Late Saturday, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said insurgents had carried out attacks in 17 of the country’s 34 provinces.

The attacks killed at least 11 civilians and three police officers, authorities said, and wounded 45 civilians and 13 police officers.

Interior Minister Bismillah Khan said authorities recorded 63 incidents involving heavy gunfire and 33 bomb explosions. More than 4,100 fake voter-registration cards were confiscated, he added.

Despite the problems, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Fazil Ahmad Manawi, said that for the most part, “I would rate this election successful.”

Crisis of confidence

Karzai’s contested victory last fall created a crisis of confidence in Afghanistan that Saturday’s vote was meant to help the country transcend.

Western officials leading efforts to quash the Taliban-led insurgency were hoping a credible election would provide a boost for their efforts to shore up the shaky Afghan government.

Nearly 140,000 U.S.-led forces are stepping up their fight against the Taliban as an increasing number of Americans are questioning the country’s leading role in the nearly nine-year war.

President Obama has pledged to begin bringing U.S. troops home next July, and Saturday’s election comes three months before Obama is due to receive a new review of his Afghan strategy that could dictate the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

International-election observers said the process still faces another critical test as the Independent Election Commission counts the votes and releases final results in six weeks.

“What we observed today, in terms of the integrity of that institution, it seems that they’ve taken a step forward, but they still have a large task ahead of them, so the coming weeks will be very telling,” said Jed Ober, the chief of staff in Afghanistan for Democracy International, an international election-monitoring group that sent 80 observers to 14 of the country’s 34 provinces.

One of the most closely watched provinces was Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan — and site of an escalating U.S.-led military campaign to break the insurgency’s resolve.

Karzai’s polarizing half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was accused last year of helping his brother rig the vote in Kandahar, where he serves as the head of the provincial council.

This year, Kandahar officials set up one polling place in President Karzai’s old elementary school in the village of Karz, a stronghold for his Popalzai tribe.

Even there, however, there was little enthusiasm for democracy or politicians.

Last year, more than 4,000 people from the area were reported to have turned out to vote, said polling station manager Agha Sherin. This year, Sherin said at midday, fewer than 400 people voted at the station, including nine women who were all either election officials or independent monitors.

Election monitors

Fraud took place on at least the scale of the discredited presidential poll of last year, according to independent election monitors in Kandahar who requested that they not be named.

They said they’d witnessed the observers of candidates at voting centers bargaining to buy the observers of other candidates, and also making deals to buy votes.

In several districts, ballot boxes were taken to private houses after the vote, depending on who had influence in that area.

In Spin Boldak and some other districts, several polling stations didn’t exist at their official addresses.

Another widespread problem arose when Afghan voters discovered that the indelible ink meant to deter fraud was easy to wash off. The ink is supposed to last 72 hours to prevent people from casting multiple ballots.

“I washed my finger with bleach and the ink is gone,” said Gul Mohammad, 25, an English teacher in Kabul, holding up a clean index finger. “If I had a fake voter card, I could have voted again.”

Officials in neighboring Helmand province said they arrested one Afghan woman with more than 1,500 fake voter-ID cards. In nearby Paktika province, officials arrested another man with an equal number of fake voting documents.

Saeed Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Hashim Shukoor and Muhib Habibi contributed to this report from Kabul and the Afghan province of Kandahar, respectively.

Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.