WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD/KABUL - The United States and the UN have praised the ‘courage’ of Afghan people who turned out in force for presidential elections, despite Taliban threats against the vote which passed off largely peacefully.

President Barack Obama hailed the presidential election in Afghanistan as an ‘important milestone’, as the US and allies prepare to withdraw military forces from that war-ravaged country.

“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the millions of Afghans who enthusiastically participated in historic elections, which promise to usher in the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history and which represent another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces,” Obama said in a statement.

“We commend the Afghan people, security forces, and elections officials on the turnout for the 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.

The president said the elections were “critical to securing Afghanistan’s democratic future, as well as continued international support.”

“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 added.

Obama also praised the American contribution to that effort on Saturday. “Today, we also pay tribute to the many Americans — military and civilian — who have sacrificed so much to support the Afghan people as they take responsibility for their own future,” said Obama.

The administration has declined to back any candidate in the contest and Obama vowed that the U.S. would work with the leader chosen by the Afghan people.

The United Nations Security Council also commended “the participation and courage of the Afghan people to cast their ballot despite the threat and intimidation by the Taliban” and other terrorist groups.

It condemned the deadly attacks which overshadowed the election campaign and urged all those involved to show patience and respect during the count.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised the “enthusiasm” of voters and the “outstanding job” by Afghan security forces.

“This has truly been an election led by Afghans, secured by Afghans, for the future of Afghans,” he said.

Assuring all-out support to the new leadership in Afghanistan, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that making decision through ballot by Afghan people reflects their determination and keen interest for adopting democratic culture.

In a statement issued in Islamabad on Sunday, he emphasised that participation in the democratic process by the Afghan people would play a significant role to bring peace and stability in the region. He said Pakistan would not only help and support Afghanistan in strengthening democracy but also work in collaboration with the new leadership in Afghanistan for bringing peace and tranquillity in the region.

Nawaz hoped not only a peaceful transfer of power may take place in Kabul as was done in Pakistan last year, but also wished that democracy may flourish in the country.

Nawaz said this election would prove as a historic moment for the Afghan people in their democratic journey. He also hoped these elections would be instrumental in creating unity and harmony among the war-torn people.

PPP leader and former president Asif Ali Zardari felicitated the Afghan people on peaceful voting with a larger than expected turnout defying the forces that had threatened the polls.

“On behalf of the PPP and on my own behalf I wish to felicitate the people, the government and the officials responsible for the polls in Afghanistan,” he said in a statement.

Hopefully the Saturday polls will be a watershed mark in the elusive journey of the people of Afghanistan on the path to peaceful democratic transition and leading to peace and stability not only in their country but also in the region, he said.

Meanwhile, leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election voiced concern that voting was tainted by fraud.

Ahead of the poll there were fears that a repeat of the massive fraud which blighted Karzai’s re-election in 2009 would undermine the winner’s legitimacy at a testing time for the war-torn country.

There were reports of polling stations in numerous parts of the country running out of ballot papers, leaving some people unable to take part.

More than 1,200 complaints had been received by the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) by Sunday morning, spokesman Nadir Mohsini said, and the number was increasing.

“Complaints include late opening of polling centres, shortage of ballot papers, encouraging of voters to vote for certain candidates and mistreatment of some election officials,” Mohsini said.

But in a promising sign for the stability of the process, two of the frontrunners to succeed Karzai said they would abide by the ECC’s rulings.

Zalmai Rassoul, who was seen before the vote as Karzai’s preferred choice, told a press conference on Sunday that he had made complaints to the ECC but refused to give details.

Former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, who claimed to be in the lead in preliminary results, voiced similar views. “There are reports of serious fraud in several locations but all is documented and will be passed on to ECC for investigation,” he said on his official Twitter account.

Whoever emerges victorious from the lengthy vote-counting and appeals process faces the prospect of fighting the Taliban without the help of US-led combat troops.

There were fears that a disputed result could spark bitterness and recrimination and put the new president in a weak position.

The third leading candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, runner up in 2009’s acrimonious poll, said his team had also filed complaints. “Unfortunately, hundreds of our countrymen were deprived of their rights due to shortage of ballots. The process was not free of flaws,” he said. “We have registered complaints about fraud.”

An estimated seven million people voted, according to the Independent Election Commission (IEC), more than 50 percent of the electorate - a huge increase on 2009 when only around a third of those eligible cast ballots.