U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought Friday to broker a deal between Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates as a bitter dispute over last month's runoff election risked spiraling out of control.
Kerry, who arrived predawn in Kabul on a hastily arranged visit, met with former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as well as the current leader, President Hamid Karzai.
The objective was to persuade both candidates to hold off on declaring victory or trying to set up a government until the United Nations can conduct an audit of extensive fraud allegations in the voting.
"We are in a very, very critical moment for Afghanistan," Kerry told reporters as he met with the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis. "Legitimacy hangs in the balance. The future potential of the transition hangs in the balance. So we've a lot of work to do."
The deadlock over the vote has quashed hopes for a smooth transition of power in Kabul, a concern for Washington as most U.S.-led forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year.
Preliminary results from a June 14 runoff round put Ghani, a former World Bank official, in the lead. But Abdullah rejected the result, calling it a "coup" against the people. His aides have threatened to set up an alternative administration.
U.S. officials said Kerry would urge both contenders to agree on a review "of all reasonable allegations of fraud," which would entail additional audits of the vote count.
"We want a unified, stable and democratic Afghanistan," Kerry said after a meeting with Abdullah. "It is important that whoever is president is recognized by the people as having become president through a legitimate process and that the government can unify the people and lead them in the future."
Abdullah's rejection of the outcome has set the stage for a possible bloody standoff between ethnic groups or even secession of parts of the fragile country, which is already deeply divided along tribal lines.
Ghani, speaking earlier, said he favored a comprehensive audit.
"Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy that the people of Afghanistan and the world will believe in," he said. "Therefore, we believe in the most intensive and extensive audit possible to restore faith."
Abdullah, for his part, said after meeting Kerry: "At a very critical time you have proved your commitment to Afghanistan, to saving Afghanistan, and saving the democratic process here."
Abdullah is a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter who draws his support from the Tajik minority in the north. Ghani has strong support from Pashtun tribes in the south and east.
Both campaigns and Karzai have asked the U.N. for help, and the U.N. has been designing a plan for deciding how ballots can be reviewed and which ones would be reviewed for possible fraud.
A U.N. audit, however rudimentary, probably could be done within two weeks, U.S. officials believe. The focus would be on clear fraud indicators, including districts with high turnout or more women going to the ballots than men.
Kerry has warned that any effort to resolve the dispute through violence or any "extra-constitutional means" would cause the United States to halt assistance to Afghanistan.
The United States is in the process of withdrawing its forces from the country after 13 years of fighting Taliban insurgents, but it remains Afghanistan’s biggest foreign donor.