U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey briefed the Senate Tuesday on the continuing dispute over Afghanistan’s presidential election, as candidate Abdullah Abdullah sounded a defiant note in Kabul by saying he wouldn’t accept preliminary results of the vote.
A former foreign minister and previous presidential contender, Abdullah is trailing opponent Ashraf Ghani, 56 to 43 percent.
Abdullah’s camp charges that a “triangle of fraud” — comprising the current President Hamid Karzai, the election commission and Ghani — conspired to rig the election.
Rising tensions over the vote come as NATO prepares to pull the bulk of its combat troops from Afghanistan. Earlier Tuesday, four troops with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were killed along with 12 Afghan police and civilians in a suicide attack.
In Washington, top lawmakers on the Senate Armed Forces Committee said they were optimistic that an audit of disputed ballots would settle allegations of fraud and result in a new president.
Abdullah addressed screaming supporters in his first public statement since the results were announced Monday, saying he would sacrifice himself rather than accept a fraudulent outcome.
“We totally reject and will never ever accept the results that have been announced yesterday in the result of fraud,” he said. “Without any doubt or suspicion, we are the winners.”
Chanting “Death to Karzai,” a handful of Abdullah supporters tore down a large picture of the current president, stomped on it and raised a poster of Abdullah in its place before the candidate arrived.
Abdullah chided the audience and said he was saddened by such actions, but the crowd continued to shout phrases like “Death to the election commission” and “Death to Ashraf Ghani.” At one point supporters shouted, “Our path is jihad.”
Mohammad Kazim, 37, an Abdullah supporter who attended the rally, said: “We should have been invited to a weapons depot rather than here. We are ready to fight to save our clean votes.”
Ghani, who came in second during the first round of voting on April 5 but now leads the vote tally, said both candidates have a responsibility to unite Afghanistan and not spark a crisis. He denied any role in possible fraud and said he was not afraid of what an audit might reveal.
“We welcome every effort that brings more transparency to the results,” he told reporters Tuesday evening. “We welcome any organization that wants to help address the complaints. We hope that there is a convincing solution to the complaints.”
In a statement on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized the idea that Abdullah could call for a parallel government.
“The United States expects Afghan electoral institutions to conduct a full and thorough review of all reasonable allegations of irregularities,” said Kerry, who Abdullah said would visit Afghanistan on Friday. “At the same time, there is no justifiable recourse to violence or threats of violence, or for resort to extra-constitutional measures or threats of the same. Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community.”
Abdullah said he has yet to decide whether to form some kind of parallel government, but that he would in the next few days.
“Our people have been waiting for so long for us to announce our government,” he said. “We will announce our government very soon.”
In recent days many foreign officials have weighed in — including several U.S. senators, the American ambassador and United Nations authorities — in a bid to salvage the legitimacy of an election that the West sees as key to a stable Afghanistan.
Abdullah said he spoke by phone on Tuesday morning with Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama and Kerry said the U.S. favors transparency and an audit of any disputed ballots, Abdullah said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, said both presidential candidates have agreed to the audit, which bodes well for the future of the country. Levin just returned from a visit to Afghanistan.
“As long as both candidates want an audit — and I believe they both genuinely do — then it will come out OK,” he said. “The only question comes down to how many millions of ballots will be reviewed or audited. There has been no declared winner by the only entity that can declare a winner, which is the elections commission.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking committee member, said he also met with both presidential candidates during a trip to Afghanistan last week.
“They are both good people, as opposed to the situation in Iraq, and I am guardedly optimistic they will get it solved,” McCain said.
However, he gave a jab to the Obama administration and its plans to withdrawal combat forces at the end of the year, saying the Afghan people feel abandoned and do not have the power to fight off the Taliban.
Stripes reporter Travis Tritten contributed to this report.