Washington (AFP) - Afghanistan's capricious politics and fresh claims of poll fraud Tuesday clouded President Barack Obama's search for a "responsible" exit from Afghanistan by year's end.
The United States, which pointedly stayed mute during two rounds of voting for Afghanistan's next president, swung into action as claims of mass electoral irregularities threatened the country's first democratic transfer of power -- in which Washington has a huge stake.
At a perilous moment for Afghanistan, Obama made an unusual call to Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate alleging he was cheated out of power by mass stuffing of ballot boxes.
Secretary of State John Kerry is meanwhile expected in Kabul soon, as Washington pushes for an expeditious audit of the election.
For now, the administration's priority is making sure that a fair and transparent result emerges from the messy electoral process, to avoid the political and tribal meltdown that would spell disaster for hopes of a smooth end to America's longest war.
Already beset with critiques that his withdrawal from Iraq left a vacuum exploited by jihadists, Obama's legacy could not bear a compromised departure from Afghanistan, where more than 2,300 American lives were lost.
- Troop agreements key -
The United States aims to replace US combat troops with a training mission -- and completing its Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and Afghanistan's companion deal with NATO governing the scope of the post-2014 mission is key.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen emerged from talks with Obama at the White House with a clear warning that Afghanistan must not allow political turmoil to delay the already tardy closing of the deals.
If they are not signed before the NATO summit set for September in Wales, "we would be faced with severe problems as regards planning for a training mission after 2014," he said.
The White House has repeatedly warned that if there is no BSA there will be no US troops but is content to wait … for a while.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told AFP there had never been a set time line for Afghanistan to close the deal, which outgoing President Hamid Karzai refused to sign despite intense US pressure.
"Of course, we're concerned … but we still have time," Warren said.
Most likely the political drama will play itself out and allow NATO time to prepare a proper transfer of mission.
"Even assuming the process is delayed until the beginning of September in terms of the signature, I suspect that the US and the International Security Assistance Force will manage to take the remaining actions within the remaining months of the year," said Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group.
- Risk of 'dangerous times' -
On the political front, White House officials privately said Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission had the capacity to probe irregularities and certify the election in time for the planned August 2 inauguration.
One official reiterated that both Abdullah and his rival Ashraf Ghani, who won preliminary results of the second round of voting, have committed to signing the BSA -- which will govern an initial force of nearly 10,000 foreign troops.
Mark Jacobson, formerly NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said Washington could do little more than stress the need for an election that is viewed as legitimate by the Afghan people.
"Actions to go around the system and establish a government without a legitimate process will plunge the country back into dangerous times in my view," he said.
Obama bluntly told Abdullah that Afghanistan's western lifeline is at stake and called on him to ignore calls by some supporters to set up a parallel government.
"We've been clear that any such move would cost Afghanistan the financial and security assistance of the United States of America," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
But Washington has been careful to avoid being seen as bullying Abdullah out of the race -- stating that, in theory, Ghani's victory could still be reversed.
Obama also needs a certified election to justify doling out billions of dollars to support Afghanistan in years to come -- the price of the US exit.
"It is absolutely essential to continue to get bipartisan support in the congress for the next government," said ICG's Schneider.
Kerry's trip to Kabul, which could not be confirmed for security reasons, could be crucial -- and he may be the ideal messenger given his experience on the losing end of a bitter presidential defeat many supporters saw as illegitimate.
In 2004, Kerry briefly considered a challenge to George W. Bush's narrow re-election victory before deciding "the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process."