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Kerry in Afghanistan to meet feuding candidates

KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Afghanistan late Thursday on an unannounced visit to press the country’s two feuding presidential candidates on the urgency of ending a bitter dispute about June elections and forming a new government by early September.

Kerry’s visit comes as the election results are being audited in a process that he brokered last month. Senior officials traveling with Kerry said the U.S. wants to see the ultimate winner inaugurated – and a new “chief executive officer” chosen by the loser under the terms of a national unity government compromise – before the upcoming NATO summit in Wales Sept. 4.

At that summit, NATO leaders are hoping to make decisions about their countries’ role in Afghanistan after the end of the year, when most combat troops will be withdrawn.

Kerry’s arrival in Kabul follows Tuesday’s killing of a U.S. general 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.

Kerry planned to meet both candidates – former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai – on Thursday night and then meet with current Afghan President Hamid Karzai before he leaves Friday for an Asian security conference in Myanmar.

The audit of ballots from the June 14 presidential runoff resumed Monday after a holiday break and is still likely to take weeks to complete.

Preliminary results showed Ghani Ahmadzai well ahead of Abdullah, but both sides alleged fraud.

Faced with the prospect of the two sides clashing amid bitter disputes about the vote tallies, Kerry made an emergency visit to Kabul and persuaded the two sides to agree to a full audit of the ballots.

Kerry has spoken by phone several times with Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai since, urging them to continue to support the electoral process and a framework for a national unity government agreed to during his last visit.

In addition to the appointment of a CEO by the losing candidate, the framework also calls for that post to be replaced by a new prime minister position after ratification by a Loya Jirga, or nationwide conference of elders and tribal chiefs.

Kerry has stressed the urgency of accelerating the audit and implementing the framework agreement following the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended in late July, and has reminded the candidates that Afghans and the country’s international partners need clarity from the process and confidence they and their supporters will be able to work together to implement changes 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 the United States would like the pact in place as soon as possible.

The political wrangling has cast a pall over U.S. and NATO planning for the withdrawal of combat troops. Tuesday’s killing of U.S. Maj. Gen. Harold Greene by the Afghan soldier, who also shot and wounded 15 other allied troops, has only exacerbated concerns.