U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Afghanistan’s dueling presidential candidates Thursday in an unannounced visit to push for a resolution of the country’s disputed election.
Kerry arrived in the capital, Kabul, in the evening and met separately with the two candidates, whose runoff election in June led to a slow and contentious hand recount of the 8 million votes cast.
Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who met with Kerry at the U.S. Embassy, are vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai. Preliminary results showed Ghani leading, but Abdullah challenged the vote and Kerry ultimately brokered an agreement on July 12 to conduct the recount.
That process, meant to address accusations of widespread fraud, has faced several hurdles. The recount has been stopped five times in just over three weeks as the two sides could not come to an agreement on the terms of invalidating votes.
On Wednesday, local news media reported a physical fight between observers for Ghani and Abdullah.
A statement from the State Department said Kerry’s one-day visit, which came just two days after an American general was killed by an Afghan soldier at a military academy in Kabul, is meant to “encourage both candidates to work together in the spirit of collegiality and statesmanship, to ensure national unity and the means to build on the progress the Afghan people have achieved.”
Earlier in the day, the two candidates met at Abdullah’s residence to discuss a joint statement they hope to release on details of a unity government that they agreed to during their meetings with Kerry last month.
As Afghans continue to wait for a resolution to the vote, Karzai called on both teams and international observers to complete the process by Aug. 25 in preparation for an inauguration in the beginning of September. Kerry is said to want the new president installed before a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Sept. 4.
The inauguration was previously scheduled for Aug. 2 but was pushed back by the vote audit. The observers, including teams from the United Nations and the European Union, have processed 4,367 ballot boxes out of more than 23,000.
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan had hoped to audit 1,000 ballot boxes a day.
Latifi is a special correspondent.