Kerry meets again with Afghan presidential candidates

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Afghanistan’s top two presidential candidates for the second straight Tuesday, as the U.S. sought to calm tensions following a runoff election clouded by allegations of mass fraud.

Kerry met with Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who holds a substantial lead in early results from the runoff election, and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who has charged mass electoral fraud in the contest to succeed President Hamid Karzai.

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Abdullah has long been the favorite in the presidential contest, and held a substantial lead over Ghani in the first round of voting. His supporters have staged mass and occasionally violent protests throughout Afghanistan, urging him to form a breakaway government that would undermine U.S. hopes for the first peaceful democratic transition in the nation’s history.

On Friday, Kerry stressed “as the country sorts through the election process, how important stability and a peaceful approach to that stability is.” He added that President Obama and the United Staes were “deeply interested in a unified, democratic, and stable Afghanistan.”

“We obviously have high hopes that the questions about the election will be resolved quickly, can be resolved, and that a way forward can take place which can give Afghans confidence that they have a presidency and a government that is capable of unifying all Afghans and building a road to the future,” Kerry said.

Kerry is urging the Afghan leaders to resist additional claims of victory and to follow the constitutionally-prescribed method of challenging election results. He’s hoping to convince the candidates to abide by a United Nations auditing effort of the vote, and that both candidates will pledge to sooth sectarian divisions if they are declared the final winner.

If the situation deescalates further, it could put in jeopardy a security agreement enabling U.S. trips to remain in Afghanistan over the next year. Both candidates had agreed to a plan that would allow 10,000 troops to remain to help train Afghan security forces, which continue to fight against the Taliban, but chaos in the government could force an early withdrawal. 

Kerry hopes for a breakthrough with the candidates before leaving Afghanistan for Geneva, where he’ll join talks on the Iranian nuclear deal and meet with his German counterpart on allegations of U.S. spying in Berlin.