KABUL, Afghanistan – The United States struggled Friday to find a path out of a presidential election crisis in Afghanistan that has jeopardized chances for a democratic transfer of power, a central plank of President Barack Obama's strategy to leave behind a stable state after the withdrawal of most U.S. troops at year's end.
Secretary of State John Kerry held a series of back-to-back meetings in Kabul that went into the night, grappling for a plan acceptable to all that would allow the United Nations to audit extensive fraud allegations in last month's runoff vote.
Kerry met separately with the rival candidates, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and conferred twice each with current President Hamid Karzai and the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis. A deal remained elusive, according to senior U.S. officials, though Kerry was to hold further discussions Saturday.
"We are in a very, very critical moment for Afghanistan," Kerry told reporters. "Legitimacy hangs in the balance. The future potential of the transition hangs in the balance."
The bitter dispute over who is Karzai's rightful successor has alarmed Afghanistan's U.S. and Western benefactors, creating 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.
A prolonged crisis would have more immediate consequences for Afghanistan. If no process is established and both Ghani and Abdullah attempt to seize power, the government and security forces could split along ethnic and regional lines.
And the winner amid all the chaos could be the Taliban, whose battle against the government persists despite the United States spending hundreds of billions of dollars and losing more than 2,000 lives since invading the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Kerry's hastily arranged predawn arrival on Friday appeared to have succeeded in its most pressing objective: Getting both candidates to pull back from declarations of victory and quieting calls among Abdullah's supporters, powerful warlords included, for setting up a "parallel government."
The preliminary runoff results, released earlier this week against U.S. wishes, suggested a massive turnaround in favor of the onetime World Bank economist Ghani, who lagged significantly behind Abdullah in first-round voting.
Abdullah, a top leader of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, claims massive ballot-stuffing. He was runner-up to Karzai in a fraud-riddled 2009 presidential vote before he pulled out of that runoff, and many of his supporters see him being cheated for a second time.
Kerry said the United States isn't 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 said.
Senior U.S. officials said the talks focused on the technical particulars of a U.N. audit and hammering home the point that whoever proves the winner, the new government must bridge Afghanistan's many ethnic and regional divides.
However, one of the officials said only the "beginnings of conversations" had occurred and offered no prediction of any breakthrough. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to be quoted while the talks were ongoing.
In meetings with Kerry at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy Friday, Ghani and Abdullah spoke in similar tones.
"Our commitment is to ensure that the election process has the integrity and the legitimacy of Afghanistan and the world," Ghani said, voicing support for the fullest audit possible.
"The future of our achievement depends on the success of the democratic process," Abdullah said, standing alongside Kerry in the same room three hours later.
Behind the scenes, however, the candidates differed on the fine points of the U.N.'s audit plan. Abdullah, for example, pushed for more voting districts to be examined. Other questions centered on who would be included among the investigators, where they'd travel and how they'd assess the level of fraud.
With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan's post-election chaos is posing a new challenge to Obama's effort to leave behind two secure governments while ending America's long wars.
Both Ghani and 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 boots on the ground in Afghanistan after most American troops pull out over the next five months.
If no clear leader emerges, the U.S. may have to bring home all its forces, an unwanted scenario that played out in Iraq just three years ago. Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, leaving it in the hands of his successor.
Obama spoke to each candidate this week, warning that any move outside the law to seize power would mean the end of U.S. financial aid to Afghanistan. Washington has significant additional leverage. If it were to cut back on its ties with Kabul, many European nations would soon follow.
Kerry urged patience from all sides. With Abdullah at his side, the top American diplomat said the preliminary results announced four days ago "are neither authoritative nor final, and no one should be stating a victory at this point in time."