Afghanistan's two presidential candidates reached agreement Saturday on a complete audit of their contested election and on forming a national unity government, regardless of who wins.
The deal brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry offered a path out of what has threatened to be a debilitating political crisis. Both candidates claimed victory and talked of setting up competing governments.
Such a scenario could have dangerously split the government and security forces at a time when the U.S. is pulling out most of its troops and the Taliban continues to wage a fierce insurgency.
Instead, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah agreed to abide by an internationally supervised audit of all 8 million ballots in the presidential election. They vowed to form a national unity government once the results are announced, presumably one that includes members of each side.
Kerry, who conducted shuttle diplomacy between the two candidates late into the night Friday and on Saturday, said much work remained.
"This will be still a difficult road because there are important obligations required and difficult decisions to be made," Kerry told reporters after briefing Afghanistan's current president, Hamid Karzai, shortly after midnight.
The audit, which comes after widespread fraud allegations, is expected to take several weeks, beginning with the ballot boxes in Kabul, the capital.
Boxes from the provinces will be flown to Kabul by U.S. and international forces, and examined on a rolling basis. Representatives of each campaign as well as international observers will oversee the review.
The inauguration, which had been scheduled for Aug. 2, would be postponed, with Karzai staying on a little longer as president.
Abdullah said the election created "serious challenges." But he praised Ghani for working toward the accord on the audit and the unity government.
Ghani returned the compliments, lauding his competitor's patriotism and commitment to a dialogue that promotes national unity.
"Stability is the desire of everyone," Ghani said. "Our aim is simple: We've committed to the most thorough audit" in history. Such a process would remove any ambiguity about the result, he said.