WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Saturday that Afghanistan's presidential election marks another milestone in the effort by the Afghan people to take full responsibility for their country as the United States and its allies gradually withdraw their forces.
Millions of Afghans went to the polls Saturday to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in spite of threats by the Taliban to disrupt the process with violence.
Dozens of polling centers did not open because of rocket and gunfire attacks. At least 20 people died as scores of attacks or attempted attacks took place over 24 hours. Suicide bombings and other attacks had been on the rise in the weeks ahead of the election.
Still, more than 6,000 polling centers were operating and more than 7 million ballots were cast, officials said. Final results may not be known for a week or longer.
"We commend the Afghan people, security forces and elections officials on the turnout for today's vote, which is in keeping with the spirited and positive debate among candidates and their supporters in the run-up to the election," Obama said in a statement.
"These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as continued international support, and we look to the Afghan electoral bodies to carry out their duties in the coming weeks to adjudicate the results, knowing that the most critical voices on the outcome are those of Afghans themselves," he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Afghans went to the polls "with courage and commitment" and added in a statement: "This is their moment. The Afghan people secured this election. They ran this election, and most importantly, they voted in this election."
U.S. plans call for combat operations to end on Dec. 31. The coalition of NATO and allied nations plans to leave 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan to advise and assist Afghan forces as long as its leaders sign a security agreement. The U.S. expects to leave some troops, most of them special operations forces, to continue to conduct counterterrorism operations.
"As Afghanistan begins a peaceful transfer of power, and we look ahead to the end of our combat mission later this year, we should not lose sight of how much we have accomplished," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement.
In praising the efforts and sacrifices of American, International Security Assistance Force and Afghan personnel and the progress that followed, Hagel said: "Above all, it shows the strength and resilience of the Afghan people, and of the partnership the United States has built with them. It is a partnership that will endure."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the election "an important step in the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history."
"But today's election did not come without significant sacrifice -- the sacrifice of the Afghan people and many Americans and service members from partner nations who have been killed and wounded fighting there since 2001," Dempsey said in a statement. "We look forward to the outcome of the elections and the opportunity to continue to work together, with a willing partner, for a better Afghanistan."