| Updated at: 0909 PST, Saturday, September 18, 2010|
KABUL: Insurgents launched a rocket attack in Kabul on Saturday as Afghanistan went to the polls to elect a new parliament, with security forces on full alert after Taliban threats to derail the vote.
The election is the latest step in a US-led process to bring democracy to the impoverished and deeply conservative Muslim country ravaged by 30 years of war and gripped by a brutal nine-year Taliban insurgency.
It comes at a pivotal time for 144,000 US-led NATO troops trying to implement a counter-insurgency strategy to reverse increasing Taliban momentum and allow American troops to start leaving next year.
Insurgents fired off a rocket near the NATO mission's central Kabul headquarters shortly before polls opened at 0230 GMT, but no casualties or damage were reported, a spokeswoman for the alliance said.
The White House warned Friday of "serious security concerns" for the vote, the second since a US-led invasion in late 2001 ousted the hardline Islamist Taliban regime.
The Taliban has threatened to attack polling centres, election workers and security forces on Saturday, warning that voters will also get hurt.
And on the eve of the poll, Taliban militants kidnapped an Afghan parliamentary candidate and were blamed for snatching another 18 election workers.
More than 2,500 candidates are contesting 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga. Among them are 406 women contesting 68 seats reserved for them under legislation designed to better their rights.
"I am not afraid of Taliban and I will cast my vote, I am optimistic about the parliamentary elections because I see that many of the candidates are young and patriotic," said 19-year-old Kabul shop keeper Abdul Mosawer.
The vote is seen as a test of the commitment by President Hamid Karzai -- whose own re-election last year was mired in massive fraud -- to crack down on rampant corruption.
Almost every inch of public space in cities across the country has been festooned with posters showing photographs of the candidates and the symbol that will appear next to their names on the ballot paper.
While much campaigning has been personality driven, the main issues facing Afghanistan's estimated 28 million people are official corruption, escalating insecurity, education and unemployment.
But with politics rooted in tribalism and power concentrated in the hands of Karzai, the future make-up of the parliament will little alter the nature of governance.
The vote is taking place at 5,816 polling stations, but more than 1,000 will stay shut because of security concerns, particularly in Taliban strongholds.
Around 63,000 Afghan soldiers and 52,000 police in the nascent forces that US and NATO troops are training have been deployed to protect the poll, while NATO has said its entire contingent would be on standby if needed.
The ballot has already been twice delayed over security fears and the need to implement electoral reforms.
The hardline militia, whose 1996-2001 regime isolated Afghanistan and effectively banned women from public life, has urged Afghans to boycott the election and instead wage jihad to drive out foreigners.
Karzai has warned there would be "irregularities," but urged all countrymen to vote, including "those Taliban who are the sons of this country".
Authorities said thousands of fake voter cards and observer accreditation badges had been seized in Kabul and the provinces of Ghazni and Ghor ahead of the vote.
Turnout -- a paltry 30 percent last year -- will be key. Experts believe that violence, expectations of fraud, vested local interests and a voting process that favours the status quo will keep it low.
Final results are not due until October 31. The lack of political parties means that the significance will be difficult to assess.
"We've had experience in our country with flawed elections and not in the middle of a war. So we're not looking for perfection here," US special envoy Richard Holbrooke told reporters in Islamabad.
While parliament is often seen as stuffed with Karzai cronies, warlords and drug dealers, it has proved itself one of Afghanistan's most combative political institutions by refusing to rubber stamp all the president's cabinet appointments and some presidential decrees.
Public support for the Afghan conflict, which has killed 509 Western troops this year and costs billions of dollars to sustain, is plummeting in foreign capitals hit by economic downturn and frustrated by the rampant corruption.