WASHINGTON (AFP) - US 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 more international support.
Afghan voters lined up outside polling stations en masse - with a final turnout expected to exceed 50 per cent, or seven million - to pick a successor to President Hamid Karzai for the first time since the US-led invasion in 2001.
Mr Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement that would allow the US 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 US-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 Taleban insurgency without their help.
"Millions of Afghan men and women took to the polls today with courage and commitment," US Secretary of State John Kerry said 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."
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 as the United States and our partners draw down our forces", Mr Obama said.
"These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as continued international support."
The US 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".
Mr Obama, who has had tense ties with Mr 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.
Mr 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 Taleban regime in 2001, 2,316 American troops have been killed, according to iCasualties.org, which uses Pentagon data to estimate combat losses.