US Secretary of State John Kerry was engaged Saturday in a difficult round of shuttle diplomacy between Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates, hoping to secure a path out of the country's postelection crisis.
Kerry was meeting separately at the US Embassy in Kabul with former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The negotiations centered on the details of a United Nations audit of last month's contested presidential election runoff.
The precise sticking points were unclear. But a joint news conference between Kerry and the two candidates at the UN compound was more than three hours behind schedule. Kerry's planned trip Saturday evening to Vienna for nuclear talks also faced a possible delay.
The prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of the election has jeopardized a central plank of President Barack Obama's strategy to leave behind a stable state after the withdrawal of most US troops at year's end.
Preliminary runoff results, released earlier this week against US wishes, suggested a massive turnaround in favor of the onetime World Bank economist Ghani, who lagged significantly behind Abdullah in first-round voting.
Abdullah, a top leader of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban before the US-led invasion in 2001, claims massive ballot-stuffing. He was runner-up to Karzai in a fraud-riddled 2009 presidential vote before he pulled out of that runoff, and many of his supporters see him being cheated for a second time. Some, powerful warlords included, have spoken of establishing a "parallel government."
Kerry was meeting for the second day with Ghani and Abdullah after discussions Friday proved inconclusive, even though both candidates have acknowledged fraud in the election and agreed in principle to a UN investigation. He also met with current Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the UN chief in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis.
The bitter dispute over who is Karzai's rightful successor has alarmed Afghanistan's US and Western benefactors, creating a political crisis that risks undermining more than a decade of efforts to build an Afghan government capable of fighting the Taliban on its own and snuffing out terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
Extended instability would have more immediate consequences for Afghanistan. If no process is established and both Ghani and Abdullah attempt to seize power, the government and security forces could split along ethnic and regional lines.
And the winner amid all the chaos could be the Taliban, whose battle against the government persists despite the United States spending hundreds of billions of dollars and losing more than 2,000 lives since invading the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Kerry repeatedly has stressed that Washington isn't taking sides. Instead, it is focused on creating a process that ensures Afghanistan's next leader is viewed as legitimate. "But I can't tell you that's an automatic at this point," he told reporters at one point Friday.
Senior US officials said the talks in Kabul had focused on the technical particulars of a UN audit and hammering home the point that whoever proves the winner, the new government must bridge Afghanistan's many ethnic and regional divides.
However, one of the officials said only the "beginnings of conversations" had occurred over the first day, and offered no prediction of any breakthrough. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to be quoted while the talks were ongoing.
Ghani and Abdullah have differed on some of the fine points of the UN's audit plan. Abdullah, for example, wants more voting districts examined. Other questions center on who would be included among the investigators, where they'd travel and how they'd assess the level of fraud.
With Iraq wracked by insurgency, Afghanistan's postelection chaos is posing a new challenge to Obama's effort to leave behind two secure governments while ending America's long wars.
Both Ghani and Abdullah have vowed to sign a bilateral security pact with Washington, which says it needs the legal guarantees in order to leave behind some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after most of the American military pulls out over the next five months.
If no clear leader emerges, the US may have to bring home all its forces, an unwanted scenario that played out in Iraq just three years ago. In recent months, a Sunni Islamist insurgency has conquered a series of Iraqi cities and the country has shown signs of fracturing.
Karzai has refused to sign a US-Afghan agreement, leaving it in the hands of his successor.