Kerry makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

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Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to push unity talks following a contentious election and growing violence in the country.

The visit comes just days after U.S. forces suffered their highest-ranking fatality in the Afghanistan War. On Tuesday, Major General Harold Greene was killed by an Afghan soldier at the country’s national defense university.

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The killing highlighted the challenges facing the Obama administration as the U.S. and NATO drawdown forces and hand over security to the Afghan government.

The Kabul government, though, is paralyzed amid a fight between two presidential candidates: Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Kerry plans to meet both candidates on Thursday night in hopes of speeding up an election recount, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

He will encourage the candidates to “help accelerate the audit process which they are both participating in, and make progress on the details of the political framework that they agreed to during the secretary’s last visit,” she said in a statement.

Last month, Kerry brokered a deal between the feuding candidates for a full recount of votes in the runoff election. The agreement was lauded but is now in danger of unraveling, as the two sides have fought over how the audit should be conducted.

The two contenders have threatened to create rival governments. Initial election results showed Ghani received more votes, but Abdullah claimed it was due to ballot fraud and refused to accept the count.

The new Afghan president was slated to be inaugurated by late August. But the feud could delay that event, raising worries for the Obama administration, which had hoped the incoming president would sign a bilateral security agreement allowing U.S. forces to stay in the country post-2014.

If the agreement is not signed by September, U.S. forces will have to prepare to leave and shut down bases, a huge logistical effort, to have them out of the country by December. 

If U.S. troops are forced to leave by December, post-2014 missions to train and advise local forces and assist with counterterrorism would be scuttled, leaving Afghanistan vulnerable to the Taliban, some argue. 

The Obama administration wants the Afghans to pick a president before NATO nations convene in Wales in early September, The Associated Press reported.

Psaki said Kerry will urge both men 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.”

Kerry will also speak with current Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday before traveling to Myanmar for an Asian security conference, according to reports.

— This story was updated at 10:10 a.m.