U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with rival Afghan presidential candidates for a second day as the United States struggles to find a path out of the crisis enveloping the nation's elections.
The prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of a runoff has jeopardized a central plank of President Obama's strategy to leave behind a stable state after the withdrawal of most U.S. troops at year's end.
Kerry met Saturday with the candidates, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, after discussions Friday proved inconclusive. The top American diplomat is grappling for a plan acceptable to all that would allow the United Nations to audit extensive fraud allegations in last month's vote.
The bitter dispute over who is President Hamid 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.
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.
Kerry's hastily arranged visit appears to have succeeded in its most pressing objective: getting both candidates to pull back from declarations of victory and quieting calls among Abdullah's supporters, powerful warlords included, for setting up a "parallel government."
In a series of back-to-back meetings Friday that went into the night, Kerry 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.
Kerry is expected to travel to Vienna later Saturday to join foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany for nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Senior U.S. officials said the talks in Kabul focused on the technical particulars of a U.N. 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 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.
Behind closed doors, Ghani and Abdullah differed on the fine points of the U.N.'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 post-election 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-Afghan agreement, leaving it in the hands of his successor.