KABUL - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday sought to push Afghanistan's election crisis towards a rapid resolution, cajoling rival presidential candidates to end their perilous stand-off as NATO troops withdraw.
Kerry, on his second visit to Kabul within weeks, set a target for the new president to be in office by the end of this month despite a dispute between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over alleged electoral fraud.
The threat of political chaos looms large in Afghanistan after Abdullah refused to accept a preliminary vote count that put Ghani ahead, saying that the election had been stolen by massive ballot-box stuffing.
In talks on Friday, Kerry tried to secure progress on a deal he brokered last month in which the winner would be chosen by an anti-fraud audit of all eight million votes, followed by the formation of a national unity government.
The deal was seen as a breakthrough as tensions spiked between candidates' supporters and the United Nations warned of the risk of a return to the ethnic violence of the 1990s civil war.
But the two candidates have since clashed repeatedly over both the audit and the power-sharing plan, with little sign that either side is prepared to concede defeat.
Kerry was due to hold a press conference later Friday after talks with the poll rivals in which he stressed the importance of Afghanistan having a new president before a NATO summit in Britain on September 4-5.
The summit is scheduled to sign off on a US-led "training and advisory" mission in Afghanistan next year after all foreign combat troops withdraw by December.
But NATO nations have expressed reluctance to make costly commitments if the country fails to complete its first democratic transfer of power - a key goal of the massive international military and aid effort since 2001.
"We would like to see the inauguration ideally by the end of the month," said a US official travelling with Kerry.
"It's important for a new president to be able to go to NATO and ask for these commitments, including continued ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) costs."
Kerry told Abdullah on Friday he had been up late working on the US decision on possible air strikes in Iraq, where the Yazidi religious minority is besieged by Sunni extremist fighters.
US President Barack Obama said the strikes were necessary to prevent a "genocide" by Islamic State militants who have seized swathes of Iraq's northern and western regions.
On Friday morning, Kerry met with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has also called for the delayed inauguration of his successor to be held within weeks.
Karzai, who has ruled since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, said the uncertainty was damaging Afghanistan's fragile security and economy.
Taliban insurgents have launched new operations in the south and east in recent months, and violence is increasing across the country according to several independent reports.
US-led foreign troop numbers have declined from a peak of 150,000 in 2012 to just 44,300 now, and NATO combat operations are winding down fast after 13 years of fighting that have failed to defeat the Taliban.
Western nations that have sent troops and billions of dollars worth of aid to Afghanistan since 2001 had hoped that a smooth election would be a flagship legacy of progress made since the austere Taliban era.
The dangers of international military intervention were underlined this week when a rogue Afghan soldier shot dead a US general at an army training centre in Kabul, wounding more than a dozen others including a senior German officer.