KABUL       -    The Taliban cut off Safiullah Safi’s right forefinger for voting in 2014. That did not stop the businessman from doing it again.

Safi’s act of defiance in Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential elections on Saturday sparked admiration after a photo of the 38-year old was posted on Twitter showing his missing right forefinger and the left one stained with indelible ink, indicating he had voted.

Braving the threat of militant attacks and delays at polling booths, Afghans cast their ballots in a major test of the Western-backed government’s ability to protect democracy. The Taliban regime was overthrown by US-led forces in 2001.

But the Islamic insurgency is now at its most powerful since its defeat, violently disrupting the nascent democracy’s elections and carrying out gruesome, often deadly retribution on those who take part.

During the 2014 presidential vote, Taliban fighters cut off the fingers of at least six voters. “I know it was a painful experience, but it was only a finger,” Safi said by telephone. “When it comes to the future of my children and country I will not sit back even if they cut off my whole hand.”

Safi described how in 2014 he had cast his vote and a day later travelled from the capital Kabul, where he lives, to the eastern city of Khost, his finger marked by the ink from voting. “The Taliban took me out of the car and away from the road where they set up a court,” he said.

“They cut off my finger, asking why I had taken part in the election despite their warning... My family told me to not do it this time, but instead I took them all to cast our votes.”

The show of resistance was warmly met by Afghans on social media, many of whom fear a return to Taliban rule and the end of democracy and hard-won freedoms. “He voted in support of democracy and for saying no to the Taliban system,” said Twitter user Kabuli.

In the parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, a larger territory now than at any point since 2001, voting is especially fraught with danger and turnout tends to be very low. The insurgents shut down many voting centres in a show of their authority.