- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says both of Afghanistan’s presidential candidates are committed to abiding by the results of the “largest, most comprehensive audit” of the election runoff ballots possible.

Kerry stood with the two candidates who are disputing the results of Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday night. He announced that Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (ahsh-RAHF’ gah-NEE’ ah-mahd-ZEYE’) and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah have agreed to abide by a 100 percent, internationally supervised audit of all ballots in the presidential election in Kabul.

Both candidates have agreed to a national unity government.

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 U.S. troops at year’s end.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

U.S. 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 U.S. Embassy in Kabul with former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. They 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 U.N. 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 U.S. troops at year’s end.

Preliminary runoff results, released earlier this week against U.S. 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 U.S.-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 U.N. investigation. He also met with current Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.N. chief in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis.

The bitter dispute over who is Karzai’s rightful successor has alarmed Afghanistan’s U.S. 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.

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