US Secretary of State John Kerry told Afghanistan on Friday its transition to a self-reliant state hung in the balance after a contested presidential election, urging officials to focus on investigating all fraud allegations to prove its legitimacy.
The deadlock over the vote has quashed hopes for a smooth transition of power in Afghanistan, a concern for Washington as most U.S.-led forces withdraw from the nation this year.
Kerry rushed to Kabul from meetings in China on Friday in a hastily arranged visit for talks with the two presidential contenders, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, as well as incumbent Hamid Karzai and other senior officials.
Preliminary results from a June 14 run-off round put Ghani, a former World Bank official, in the lead but Abdullah rejected the result, calling it a "coup" against the people, and his aides have threatened to set up an alternative administration.
"The election legitimacy hangs in the balance, the future potential of the transition hangs in the balance, so we have a lot to do," Kerry said after a meeting with U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan Jan Kubis.
"Our hopes are that there is a road that can be found that will provide that capacity for the questions to be answered, for people's doubts to be satisfied, and hopefully for a future to be defined. But I can't tell you that that's going to be an automatic at this point."
U.S. officials said Kerry would urge both contenders to agree on a review "of all reasonable allegations of fraud", which would entail additional audits of the vote count.
"We want a unified, stable and democratic Afghanistan. It is important that whoever is president is recognized by the people as having become president through a legitimate process, and that the government can unify the people and lead them in the future," Kerry said after a meeting with Abdullah.
Abdullah's rejection of the outcome has set the stage for a possible bloody standoff between ethnic groups or even secession of parts of the fragile country, which is already deeply divided along tribal lines.
Ghani, speaking earlier, said he favoured a comprehensive audit. "Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy that the people of Afghanistan and the world will believe in," he said.
"Therefore we believe in the most intensive and extensive audit possible to restore faith."
Abdullah, for his part, said after meeting Kerry: "At a very critical time you have proved your commitment to Afghanistan, to saving Afghanistan, and saving the democratic process here."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Reuters that an agreement on a broad review of the votes would be an initial step to enable the candidates to talk through their differences.
"Secretary Kerry's goal is to help the parties find a way forward that ensures that the next president of Afghanistan has a credible mandate to lead a unified Afghanistan," she said.
The United States believes the results of the final tally in the second round should not be released until the audits have been completed. Washington considers the results to be preliminary.
Abdullah is a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter. He draws his support from the Tajik minority in the north. Ghani has strong support from Pashtun tribes in the south and east.
Kerry has warned that any effort to resolve the dispute through violence or any "extra-constitutional means," would cause the United States to withdraw assistance to Afghanistan.
The United States is in the process of withdrawing its forces from the country after 12 years of fighting Taliban insurgents, but remains the country's biggest foreign donor, helping to fund the operations of the Afghan government.
A senior State Department official said if Washington withdrew support, other donors were likely to follow and that would have a significant impact on the government's actions.
"Both sides have expressed to the secretary that they want to get to an outcome that is credible, transparent and accepting," the official told reporters en route to Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We're not asking them to do something they don't want themselves."
(Writing by Lesley Wroughton and Maria Golovnina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)