Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting rival Afghan presidential candidates for a second day as the US struggles to find a path out of the crisis enveloping the nation’s elections.
The prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of a run-off has jeopardised a central part of President Barack Obama’s strategy to leave behind a stable state after the withdrawal of most US troops at year’s end.
Mr Kerry is today meeting the candidates, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, after discussions yesterday proved inconclusive.
He is looking for a plan acceptable to all that would allow the United Nations to audit extensive fraud allegations in last month’s vote.
The bitter dispute over who is President Hamid Karzai’s rightful successor has alarmed Afghanistan’s US and Western benefactors.
It has created a political crisis that risks undermining more than a decade of efforts to build an Afghan government capable of fighting the Taliban on its own and snuffing out terrorist groups like al Qaida.
Extended instability would have more immediate consequences for Afghanistan. If no process is established and both Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah attempt to seize power, the government and security forces could split along ethnic and regional lines.
The winner amid the chaos could be the Taliban, whose fight against the government persists despite the US spending hundreds of billions of dollars and losing more than 2,000 lives since invading the country after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Preliminary run-off results, released earlier this week against US wishes, suggested a massive turnaround in favour of the onetime World Bank economist Mr Ghani, who lagged significantly behind Mr Abdullah in first-round voting.
Mr Abdullah, a senior leader of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban before the US-led invasion in 2001, claims massive ballot-stuffing.
He was runner-up to Mr Karzai in a fraud-riddled 2009 presidential vote before he pulled out of that run-off, and many of his supporters see him being cheated for a second time.
Mr Kerry’s hastily arranged visit appears to have succeeded in its most pressing objective – getting both candidates to pull back from declarations of victory and quieting calls among Mr Abdullah’s supporters, powerful warlords included, for setting up a “parallel government”.
In a series of meetings yesterday that went into the night, Mr Kerry stressed that Washington is not taking sides.
Instead, it is focused on creating a process that ensures Afghanistan’s next leader is viewed as legitimate.
“But I can’t tell you that’s an automatic at this point,” he told reporters at one point.
Mr Kerry is expected to travel to Vienna later today to join foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany for nuclear negotiations with Iran.
With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan’s post-election chaos is posing a new challenge to Mr Obama’s effort to leave behind two secure governments while ending America’s long wars.
Both Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah have vowed to sign a bilateral security pact with Washington, which says it needs the legal guarantees in order to leave behind some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after most American troops pull out over the next five months.
If no clear leader emerges, the US may have to bring home all its forces, an unwanted scenario that played out in Iraq just three years ago.
Mr Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, leaving it in the hands of his successor.