Afghanistan’s two rival presidential candidates agreed to abide by an audit of all votes cast in the country’s disputed election, a breakthrough brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the leader in last month’s vote, and Abdullah Abdullah, who has challenged the results as skewed by fraud, also agreed to form a national unity government once the winner is determined.
The candidates hugged and stood side-by-side before cameras to raise their arms hand-in-hand. A “winner-take-all” approach “doesn’t serve national interests,” Ghani said. He thanked Abdullah for “patriotism and commitment to dialogue that promotes national interests and national unity.”
Kerry announced the audit accord late yesterday in Kabul at a press conference where he was joined by Ghani, Abdullah and Jan Kubis, the United Nations envoy on Afghanistan.
Boxes containing eight million ballots from across Afghanistan will be secured by U.S., NATO and Afghan military forces, Kerry said. The audit is likely to take several weeks, he said.
After the audit, a unity government will provide “assurance that we’ll work together and work out details in mutual trust,” Ghani said.
Kerry visited current Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the audit announcement, and at the presidential palace said the agreement “is the strongest possible signal by both candidates of the desire to restore legitimacy” to the political process.
Karzai, whose term in office is scheduled to end Aug. 2, said he will extend his tenure until his successor is determined.
Kerry arrived in Afghanistan on July 11, sent by President Barack Obama to seek a way out of the stalemate that has clouded the June 14 election. The talks he conducted with Ghani and Abdullah were “serious” and “constructive,” Kerry said the UN office in Kabul.
Kerry made his detour to Kabul following a conference he attended in Beijing to keep Afghanistan on track for a peaceful and accepted transfer of political power as the U.S. prepares to end its combat role in the country by year-end.
The U.S. wants the next Afghan president to sign an agreement that would keep American troops in the country beyond this year. Both candidates have pledged to sign the accord, which Karzai has spurned.
The agreement will pave the way for the retention of about 9,800 U.S. military personnel for training and counterterrorism missions, down from the 31,000 troops there today. The number would be reduced to about 4,900 by 2015.
Kerry made clear that Obama was prepared to cut off billions of dollars in U.S. aid if “violent or extra-constitutional means” are used in the election discord that threatens to splinter the country along ethnic and geographic lines.
“We are at a very, very critical moment for Afghanistan,” Kerry said at his first meeting on July 11, a breakfast with Kubis. “The election legitimacy hangs in the balance. The future potential of a transition hangs in the balance, so we have a lot of work to do.”
Kubis, at yesterday’s press conference, said Ghani and Abdullah showed “real statesmanship” in accepting the agreement on the vote audit. “This is a really good day for Afghanistan,” Kubis said.
The deal was reached in the final six hours of marathon talks, during which Abdullah and Ghani agreed to sit down together, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to be identified. Kerry spent the first day shuttling between the candidates who sat in two separate rooms, the official said.
Abdullah had rejected as fraudulent an initial count that showed Ghani ahead by 12 percentage points in the election, which proceeded despite efforts by Taliban forces to disrupt it.
Ghani, a former finance minister, received 56 percent of the vote and Abdullah, a former foreign minister, got 44 percent, according to the initial results announced on July 7 by the commission.
Abdullah has sought to void about 2.5 million votes in southern and eastern regions, saying the number of ballots exceeded the population in certain areas. A senior election official he had accused of fraud resigned last month.
Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York.
Abdullah is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik. He was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik seen by many Afghans as a national hero for fighting against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. Massoud was assassinated in 2001.
Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been among those urging Abdullah and Ghani to form a coalition government, regardless of who is declared the presidential winner. “A winner-take-all system in Afghanistan is not a workable” option, Dobbins said earlier this month.
Kerry now is headed to Vienna for meetings with counterparts from the European Union, U.K., Iran, France, and Germany that will focus on the efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. On the sidelines of those talks, Kerry will also discuss the renewed violence in the Gaza Strip and the strain in U.S. relations with Germany sparked by a spying scandal.