Secretary of State John F. Kerry made an unscheduled stopover in Kabul early Friday in an attempt to resolve the dispute between two politicians claiming to have won Afghanistan's protracted presidential election, the State Department announced.
Angry claims by former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah that massive election fraud gave the election to former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani have further undermined stability in the country that U.S. forces have occupied for a dozen years and that Washington has propped up with hundreds of billions of dollars in investments.
In an announcement via Twitter, the State Department said Kerry had arrived in the Afghan capital to meet with outgoing President Hamid Karzai as well as with Abdullah and Ghani.
Kerry spent the last two days in China and was on his way to a meeting in Vienna with fellow foreign ministers of the six-nation forum trying to beat a July 20 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran.
"I've been in touch with both candidates several times as well as President Karzai,” Kerry said before leaving Beijing. He called on the two contenders "to show critical statesmanship and leadership at a time when Afghanistan obviously needs it."
The U.S.-led combat mission in Afghanistan that has struggled to keep order and build democratic institutions since the October 2001 invasion winds down at the end of this year. A post-withdrawal force to provide training and counter-terrorism assistance has yet to be worked out.
The Obama administration wants to leave about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the fighting force withdraws, but an authorizing agreement has yet to be signed. Karzai declined to approve it, saying it was a decision for his successor. The Bilateral Security Agreement, as it is known, was due to be completed by the end of 2013, and Pentagon officials have lamented that planning and financing of the post-2014 operation is undermined by the political disputes.
Inauguration has been scheduled for Aug. 2, but the date is in jeopardy as the disputed election results have stirred more sectarian and tribal discord in the country.
"This is a critical moment for the transition, which is essential to future governance of the country and the capacity of the [U.S. and its allies] to be able to continue to be supportive and be able to carry out the mission which so many have sacrificed so much to achieve,” Kerry said.
More than 2,000 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, where the Taliban forces driven out in 2001 have rebounded and attacked Afghan soldiers and police struggling to take over security from the departing foreign forces.
Abdullah won 45% of the vote in the eight-man first round of balloting in April, versus Ghani's 31.6%. But results of the June 14 runoff released this week showed a dramatic turnaround in favor of Ghani, which Abdullah claims was the result of massive ballot-box stuffing.
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