U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit late Thursday to meet with rival presidential candidates locked in a hard-fought dispute over election results.
Kerry met with both candidates late Thursday. He is expected to press for a resolution between former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, who disagree about the results of a run-off vote that placed Ghani as the frontrunner.
He will also hold talks with Jan Kubis, the U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan and will meet on Friday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hammer out a schedule for the election winner to be finally declared before heading to Myanmar for an Asian security conference.
This is the secretary's second trip to the country in a month. In July, he negotiated a deal in which Ghani and Abdullah agreed to an audit of all 8 million votes from the June 14 run-off election.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul says 18 percent of the nearly 23,000 ballot boxes have been reviewed by an international team overseeing the audit.
A State Department official traveling with Kerry told reporters Thursday the United States wants a new Afghan president to be in office before the end of this month, before the September 4 NATO summit in Wales where the international community's role in Afghanistan will be a focus.
The U.S. official said, "we are hopeful the secretary can obtain a commitment by both candidates to a timeline for completing the audit and agreeing on the details of a national unity government."
Preliminary results of the eight million votes showed former World Bank economist Ghani ahead of Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter. But Abdullah has accused Ghani and Afghan election officials of massive ballot-box stuffing and refused to accept the result. His supporters are urging him to set up a "parallel government."
Kerry's visit to Afghanistan comes as the body of U.S. Major General Harold Greene arrived at the Dover Air Force Base in the U.S. state of Delaware. Greene is the highest-ranking U.S. serviceman killed in action since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. He was shot in an "insider attack" Tuesday in Kabul.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington that in light of the attack, the president's commitment to strategy in Afghanistan is unchanged as U.S. troops continue their withdrawal from the country.
Under the deal, agreed upon verbally, the winning candidate will take the role of president and form a government of national unity, while the loser will assume the position of chief executive.
The structure of that government, however, still needs to be hammered out and the two candidates have widely divergent views on how it should function.
Kerry's visit was "to encourage both candidates to accelerate the audit process. We really want to see it moving faster," a U.S. official said.
Although a painstaking audit of all 8 million ballots cast in the second round of voting is under way, neither candidate has openly endorsed the process and the deadlock has raised the specter of violent conflict along ethnic lines.
The clock is now ticking for a new president to be in office before the end of this month ahead of a NATO summit on September 4-5. NATO desperately wants Afghanistan to have a leader at the summit that was to be a crowning moment of its mission of more than a decade, and before Western combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
While Karzai has said the next president will be inaugurated on August 25, most officials involved in the process say the deadline is optimistic and it could take until the end of the month for a winner to emerge at the earliest.
At a meeting Thursday with U.N. special representative for Afghanistan Ján Kubiš, Karzai said the feud over results has "negatively affected the country’s security, stability and economy."
He also called for the candidates and auditors to meet the planned August deadline to declare a winner in the race.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this report from Islamabad. Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AFP.