KABUL – US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Afghanistan on Friday on a key mission to try to quell tensions over disputed presidential polls which have triggered fears of violence and ethnic unrest.
Kerry, who landed amid tight security on a pre-dawn, unannounced visit, had earlier said Afghanistan faces a "critical moment" as Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani wrangle over who will lead the country while international forces prepare to withdraw following more than a decade of war.
Preliminary results from last month's second round run-off have put Ghani in the lead, but Abdullah, who has already once lost a presidential bid, has declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory.
The election stand-off has sparked concern that protests could spiral into ethnic violence and even lead to a return of the fighting between warlords that ravaged Afghanistan during the 1992-1996 civil war.
Without backing either candidate, Kerry was to meet Friday with outgoing President Hamid Karzai as well as both presidential hopefuls, UN officials and possibly members of the independent election commission.
"A perfect election in these conditions is neither possible nor really the objective," a senior US administration admitted.
The US was "going to push for the very best, most credible, most transparent and most broadly accepted outcome that we can under the circumstances," he told reporters flying in with Kerry from Beijing.
"There are a number of constraints to getting an outcome that would reflect a very exact vote-count... but we can get to a much better outcome than we currently have."
Ghani's campaign spokesman Abdul Ali Mohammadi said Kerry was "coming here to solve the election deadlock, and I think it is a positive step." Abdullah's spokeswoman Lailuma Ahmadi also welcomed Kerry's visit. "We think it is a positive move and we welcome any move and efforts to separate clean votes from unclean votes or fraudulent votes," Ahmadi said.
Kerry will be pressing both candidates to accept a thorough review of the results, and the two candidates have broadly agreed to four types of audits, the US official said. Auditors may look at districts in which a perfectly round number of votes was recorded, or where the number of women voters outnumbered men, "which in the Afghan context seems like an unlikely outcome."
Election officials will also look at districts with very high turnout figures.
Unrest fears grow
Amid protests and political turmoil, the United States has warned both candidates that any attempted power grab will lead to an immediate cut in billions of dollars in annual aid to Afghanistan.
Kerry, speaking at a press conference after two days of high-stakes talks in Beijing, said "this is a critical moment for the transition which is essential to the future governance of the country."
After more than 13 years of war following the 2001 US invasion to oust hardline Taliban militants, President Barack Obama has said all American forces will be withdrawn by the end of 2016.
The 30,000 US troops on the ground will be whittled down to 9,800 next year, leaving Afghan security forces in full control of battling a resilient Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency.
Eight million votes were cast in the run-off, and preliminary results showed Ghani garnered an estimated 56 per cent, while Abdullah, who had been seen as the front-runner, got some 43 per cent – a gap of around one million votes.
UN officials have said that a full audit of the results could take up to two weeks, but some Afghan officials are pressing to stick by an election calendar which would see the new president inaugurated on August 2.
"We don't consider that an impossible goal," the US official said, but getting a credible outcome "was more important that sticking to a timeline."
There are growing fears in Washington that without a successful political transition, the situation could deteriorate and mirror the violent chaos currently gripping Iraq.
The Obama administration is also desperately waiting for Afghan leaders to sign a bilateral pact governing the presence of US forces in the country beyond this year.
Karzai walked away from the deal, but both presidential candidates have said that they would sign it.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term in office, has stayed publicly neutral in the lengthy election, but Abdullah supporters accuse him of fixing the vote in Ghani's favour. — AFP