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Amid attacks, Afghan recount begins

| Thursday, July 17, 2014, 5:33 p.m.

KABUL — Afghan election officials on Thursday began a nationwide recount of ballots from last month's disputed presidential runoff, just hours after the Taliban staged a predawn attack on Kabul International Airport.

The raid by four gunmen, one of the most brazen militant assaults in recent months, underscored Afghanistan's mounting political and security woes as foreign troops prepare to withdraw by the end of the year.

For weeks, the political crisis stemming from the dispute over the results of the June 15 runoff threatened to destabilize Afghanistan, with one candidate nearly declaring a breakaway government.

Meanwhile, security forces continue to battle the Taliban-led insurgency in many parts of the country. At least a dozen explosions and the sound of heavy gunfire pierced the predawn calm in Kabul about 4:30, as insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades from a building about a mile from the airport runway, according to security officials.

Fighter jets swooped over the city as Afghan forces fought and eventually killed the militants in a four-hour gun battle.

Also in the capital, the Independent Election Commission announced that it had started inspecting votes from the June 15 poll, which election officials acknowledged was marred by widespread fraud. The U.N.-supervised audit of 8 million ballots will take three to four weeks and involve hundreds of staffers working 12-hour shifts, IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani said.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and aide to legendary mujahideen commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, accused the commission of helping rig the vote for his opponent, former finance minister and World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani.

When the IEC last week released preliminary results that showed Ghani with 56 percent of the vote, Abdullah cried foul, and some of his most powerful supporters warned that they might declare a parallel cabinet. Ghani finished second to Abdullah in the first round of voting on April 5, but Abdullah fell short of a majority, necessitating the runoff.

Abdullah's campaign spokesman said that 30 ballot boxes were “symbolically recounted” on Thursday but that the full audit did not immediately start. Nuristani said earlier that international observers had not yet arrived in Kabul to monitor the full recount.

The presidential election was supposed to mark Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power. But the dispute over the runoff results challenged that endeavor. In a last-minute effort to stave off the potential collapse of the Afghan state, the White House dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to help resolve the impasse.

The two sides reached a vague agreement on Saturday that reportedly outlined the principles of the audit and a more general framework for a national consensus government after the new results are announced. Kerry was instrumental in leading the negotiations.

But soon afterward, officials from both campaigns said there were disagreements over whether the IEC or an international institution such as the United Nations would be in charge of the recount, suggesting that the accord was in trouble.

A senior U.S. official said on Monday, however, that the IEC would technically conduct the audit, although “it's being done under the auspices of and the supervision by the U.N.”

The rival campaigns had been tasked with nominating a new IEC chief executive under the deal. But speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Abdullah said they agreed to appoint two persons from each side to jointly manage the IEC.

“It would have taken too much time to find a person” trusted by both sides to honestly run the audit, Abdullah said.

According to one of Abdullah's two vice-presidential picks, Mohammad Mohaqiq, the candidate with the least votes after the recount will become “chief executive” of the government, a post that will eventually transition to that of prime minister.

Such an arrangement would upend Afghanistan's highly centralized presidential system, but it would pave the way for a more even distribution of power, American officials said.

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