KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's troubled presidential election was rocked by more turmoil on Wednesday as both candidates vying to succeed Hamed Karzai pulled their observers out of a ballot audit meant to determine the winner of a June runoff.
First, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, pulled his monitors from the audit to protest the process that his team claims is fraught with fraud.
Then, the United Nations, which is helping supervise the U.S.-brokered audit, asked the other candidate, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, to also pull out his observers in the interest of fairness.
The U.N. team said the audit then proceeded without both candidates' teams.
It was not immediately clear if the pullout meant the two candidates would reject the audit results — and thereby also the final result of the election. That could have dangerous repercussions in a country still struggling to overcome ethnic and religious divides and battling a resurgent Taliban insurgency.
The U.S. brokered the audit of the eight million ballots from the presidential runoff as a way to end what had been a debilitating impasse over election results. But the audit itself has proceeded in fits and starts this summer as both sides argued over every ballot.
Abdullah came in first during the first round of voting in April but preliminary results from the June runoff showed Ahmadzai in the lead. That sparked accusations of rampant fraud from the Abdullah camp.
Ahmadzai's camp also alleged voting irregularities and both sides agreed to the audit after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in July. It was decided the process would be led by the U.N. and Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, and observed by monitors from each candidate's campaign team.
On Tuesday, Abdullah's camp threatened to boycott the audit if their concerns over fraud were not addressed. Then on Wednesday, it followed through on the threat and pulled observers from the recount, which is being carried out in warehouses on the edge of the capital, Kabul.
"It is full of fraud," said a spokesman for Abdullah, Fazel Sancharaki, after the pullout. "Nobody is paying attention to our demands."
After the move by the Abdullah camp, U.N. representative Nicholas Haysom told reporters in Kabul that the U.N. asked the opposing side to assess whether they should participate in the audit as well and said Ahmadzai's camp later agreed to also pull out.
"The audit will now proceed to its conclusion," Haysom said. "We do not anticipate any significant disruption to the process going forward."
Abdullah has not spoken publicly since the boycott was announced. The campaign still has the option of sending observers back to the audit, and Haysom said they were ready to address concerns from either side.
Initially, Abdullah's team was concerned that not enough ballots have been invalidated to correspond to the level of fraud the team believes happened, and asked that the criteria for invalidation be expanded.
The election impasse has also hurt Afghanistan's economy, as customers worrying about the outbreak of civil war hold onto their money and investors put the brakes on new projects as they wait to see how the crisis unfolds. It has also delayed the signing of a new security pact with the United States that would allow a small number of troops to stay in Afghanistan past December.
Karzai, who has been trying to bring both sides together to overcome the impasse, met with the two candidates Sunday and again Tuesday. He insisted the inauguration of the new president must happen by Sept. 2 — two days before NATO members are expected to meet in Wales.
Without a new president, it's unclear who would represent Afghanistan at a meeting that will discuss the military coalition's support for Afghan forces. A spokesman for Karzai, Aimal Faizi, said the president was not willing to go himself and that it was better to send the new president. Karzai has clashed with NATO over such issues as night raids and civilian casualties in airstrikes. The president has refused to sign an agreement allowing international forces to stay in Afghanistan past December.
Afghanistan has faced a renewed Taliban insurgency this summer as the militants test Afghan forces who are fighting for the first time largely without international backup.
In the central Ghor province, Gov. Anwar Rahmati said Wednesday that local security forces were battling a group of roughly 700 Taliban in the southern Pasaband district. Militants have killed nine police officers and captured another 30, Rahmati said.
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