Kerry in Kabul to Seek New Afghan President This Month

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates in Kabul yesterday to lay out a road map to complete a vote audit and inaugurate a new leader by the end of the month.

The U.S. wants either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai sworn in before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s summit in Wales on Sept. 4-5, a State Department official told reporters traveling with Kerry. Then, the new president can request funds for Afghan security forces, said the official, who asked not to be identified under State Department rules.

“The secretary will follow up on his July visit to Kabul and his subsequent phone calls to the candidates,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement on Kerry’s arrival yesterday. He’ll encourage them to accelerate the vote audit and make progress on a power-sharing agreement reached during Kerry’s visit last month, she said.

Time is running short for the U.S. and Afghanistan to sign a pact that would keep American troops in the war-torn country beyond this year. Failure to reach a deal would elevate concerns that Afghanistan may go the way of Iraq, where militants have made gains against government forces after a U.S. withdrawal.

UN Assembly

At the current rate, a recount of the 8 million ballots cast in the disputed June 14 election is unlikely to be finished this month, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. Instead, they said, the U.S. is anticipating the new Afghan president taking office in time for the annual UN General Assembly session that begins on Sept. 24 in New York.

Last night, Kerry met Ghani and Abdullah separately at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, after a dinner with Jan Kubis, the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan. Kubis helped Kerry broker last month’s accord for a full recount.

Kerry today visited the presidential palace and spoke with President Hamid Karzai, whose term was extended beyond Aug. 2 to serve until the audit is complete. Kerry, Ghani and Abdullah will meet together today before a press briefing.

While Karzai has refused to sign the agreement to keep U.S. and allied troops, both Ghani and Abdullah have said they would do so. The agreement, while protecting U.S. troops from local prosecution in Afghanistan, would secure billions of dollars in aid for Asia’s poorest country. Foreign grants pay for about 50 percent of the Afghan government’s expenditures, according to World Bank estimates.

Losing Candidate

Under the political agreement forged during Kerry’s last visit, the losing candidate would become chief executive officer, a new position that would report to the president, the State Department official said. The CEO’s role eventually would become executive prime minister after constitutional changes are approved.

About 2,400, or 10 percent, of the 23,000 ballot boxes have been counted so far, the State Department official said. Ghani was the leader in an initial announced vote tally when Abdullah disputed the results as fraudulent and claimed victory, prompting the U.S. to warn both sides against staging a coup.

President Barack Obama is reviewing security measures after an Afghan soldier this week shot dead the highest ranking U.S. military officer in 13 years of war. Obama plans to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 9,800 by the end of this year, with only a small force at the embassy by the end of 2016, when he will be preparing to leave office.

Thirteen years of the U.S. fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan has cost 2,339 American lives, as of Aug. 6, according to date compiled by Bloomberg. Afghan civilian casualties rose 24 percent in the first half of 2014 from the same period a year earlier, according to a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kabul.

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