KABUL, Afghanistan --The Obama administration on Thursday stepped up efforts to press Afghanistan's two feuding presidential candidates to end their dispute over June elections, accept the results of an ongoing audit of all ballots and form a national unity government by early September.
On an unannounced visit to Kabul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made personal appeals to both candidates - former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai - to understand the urgency of finding a resolution before the upcoming NATO summit in Wales on September 4, according to officials traveling with Kerry. At that summit, NATO leaders are hoping to make decisions about their nations' roles in Afghanistan after the end of the year, when most combat troops will be withdrawn.
Officials with Kerry said the summit would be an opportunity for the eventual election winner to present himself to the alliance and introduce his new cabinet, which, under a formula brokered by Kerry on his last visit to Kabul in June, would include the election loser appointing a new "chief executive officer" who would serve under the president. Once created, the Afghan government would convene a loya jirga, or nationwide assembly, to formalize the chief executive post as a prime minister, the plan envisions.
Kerry's visit comes as the election results are being audited in a process that he brokered last month but that had halted to mark the end the of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in late July. The audit resumed earlier this week with representatives of both candidates participating but still at odds over charges of widespread election fraud in the June 14 runoff. Preliminary results of the poll showed Ghani Ahmadzai well ahead of Abdullah, but both sides alleged fraud.
Kerry, who will see current President Hamid Karzai on Friday before he leaves Afghanistan for an Asian security conference in Myanmar, met separately with Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul. No details of the discussions were immediately available beyond the small talk the officials made while reporters and photographers were present. He will meet with the candidates again on Friday.
"On Ramadan, tempers go up," Ghani Ahmadzai said when Kerry asked him how his holiday was.
"Oh, I know," Kerry replied.
Abdullah noted that Kerry has been "very busy" dealing with multiple crises around the world.
Kerry's arrival in Kabul followed Tuesday's killing of U.S. Maj. Gen. Harold Greene by an Afghan soldier at the national defense university, an incident that underscored the tensions that persist as the U.S. combat role winds down. The political uncertainty that Kerry is trying to address is another complicating factor in the transition.
Since his last visit, Kerry has stressed the urgency of accelerating the audit and implementing the framework agreement and has reminded the candidates that Afghans and the country's international partners need clarity from the process and confidence that they and their supporters will be able to work together to implement reforms no matter who wins.
Both candidates have pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that would give legal protections to residual American forces, but Washington would like the pact in place as soon as possible.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the murder of the general would not affect "our decision or resolve to continue moving forward on an enduring presence post-2014."