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Afghan candidates will not attend NATO summit

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s defense minister will attend this week’s NATO summit instead of a new president, a blow for the country as it tries to reassure international donors of its political stability.

Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi will lead a delegation from the current Afghan government, which will also include the ministers of economy and foreign affairs. Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has declined to attend.

Spokesmen for rival presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani said the two men agreed to remain in Afghanistan to focus on the review of their June 14 runoff and continue talks toward forming a new joint government.

The decision comes after a United Nations announcement last week that results of the review likely wouldn’t be ready until Sept. 10.

“Right now because it’s been postponed, that’s why I think they decided not to go,” said Hamidullah Farooqi, a Ghani campaign spokesman. “Which is unfortunate.”

Plans have long called for a new president to be inaugurated in time to attend the summit, seen as key to decisions on both NATO’s future military presence in the country and continued funding for Afghan security forces.

The presence of a new leader after a peaceful transition of power, the first in Afghanistan’s history, would have made a strong statement that the country had made progress worthy of future international commitment.

The election process broke down in July amid allegations by Abdullah’s campaign of fraud.

Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal later that month to resolve the crisis in time for an inauguration to take place before the NATO summit, but disagreements between the two candidates and delays in the review have since dogged efforts to find a winner.

Political talks between the two candidates have also stalled over disagreements over the authority and scope of new positions in the government. The Kerry deal envisioned the creation of an “opposition leader,” to be occupied by the losing candidate, and a “chief executive” filled with a nominee chosen by the losing candidate and approved by the president. After constitutional changes, the chief executive would succeeded by a prime minister.

Both candidates say they support the presence in the country of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and both have vowed to sign agreements allowing for a NATO-led training and advising force of about 15,000 troops to remain once the coalition’s combat role ends this year.

Karzai has repeatedly refused to sign those agreements, leaving that responsibility to the new president. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has warned that time is running out for a deal with a new president, although he has not given a deadline.

The candidate teams had talked about the possibility that the two men would attend the NATO summit together as a sign of unity. They will instead release a joint statement or hold a news conference together, according to Abdullah spokesman Mujeeb-ur-Rahman Rahimi.

The ramifications of the impasse go beyond the NATO summit, with frustration rising throughout the country. Foreign investment has fallen. Retailers commonly complain they are losing business from customers afraid to spend because of the uncertainty. And Afghan military commanders say enemy fighters are trying to exploit the situation to sow further doubt in the central government. 

beardsley.steven@stripes.com

Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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