US Secretary of State John Kerry began a mission to mediate an end to the political crisis in Afghanistan yesterday, warning that a bitter dispute over presidential polls threatened the country’s future.
“Obviously we are at a very critical moment for Afghanistan,” Kerry said as he met Jan Kubis, the head of the UN assistance mission in the country. “The election legitimacy hangs in the balance. The future potential of the transition hangs in the balance, so we have a lot of work to do.”
The top US diplomat also met outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and then former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, who is well ahead in the preliminary results of last month’s second round run-off.
In a swift boost for Kerry’s diplomacy, Ghani threw his backing behind US calls for a wide audit of the elections, amid accusations by his rival Abdullah Abdullah of massive fraud.
“Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy of the people of Afghanistan and the world,” Ghani told reporters as he was welcomed to the heavily fortified US embassy in Kabul. “Therefore we believe in the most intensive and extensive audit possible to restore faith.”
Ghani said he and his supporters were committed to “an inclusive government. A government that could represent all of Afghans, and serve every Afghan citizen in the manner that every Afghan deserves according to the constitution.”
Kerry, who was to meet Abdullah later yesterday, said “no one is declaring victory at this time. The results are yet to be finalized.”
The stakes could not be higher, as the next president will have to steer the war-torn country as international troops withdraw, leaving Afghan forces to fight a bloody, stubbornly resilient Taliban insurgency.
“Our hopes are that there is a road that can be found that will provide that capacity for the questions to be answered, for people’s doubts to be satisfied and hopefully for a future to be defined,” Kerry said.
He warned that was not “an automatic at this point.”
Preliminary results have put Ghani in the lead, but Abdullah, who has already once lost a presidential bid in controversial circumstances, has declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory.
The election stand-off has sparked fears that protests could spiral into ethnic violence — and even lead to a return of the fighting between warlords that ravaged Afghanistan during the 1992 to 1996 civil war.
The US was “going to push for the very best, most credible, most transparent and most broadly accepted outcome that we can,” a senior US official said.
Auditors may look at districts with a very high turnout, or a perfectly round number of recorded votes, or where the number of women voters outnumbered men, “which in the Afghan context seems like an unlikely outcome.”
A statement from Karzai’s office said Kubis had presented a UN plan late on Thursday to audit about 8,000 ballot boxes, representing 43 percent of the total votes — or about 3.5 million votes.
UN officials have said a full audit of the results could take up to two weeks, but some Afghan officials want to stick by an election calendar that would see the new president inaugurated on Aug. 2.
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