KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Somber and reflective, Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah says his country was on the verge of a "very serious, serious situation" before he struck a U.S.-brokered deal with his rival to avert the crisis by holding a fully audited vote count.
The ex-foreign minister, who is in a deadlocked contest to succeed Hamid Karzai, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that he holds out hope that the outcome will bring Afghanistan closer to his vision of a country ruled by democratic institutions and laws.
"It's not like a win-lose situation, it's a sort of win-win situation," he said.
Asked about a published report that some supporters were ready to seize the presidential palace by force before the deal, because they feared the June 14 runoff was being decided fraudulently, he declined to discuss details.
"But it was a very serious, serious situation, not just in Kabul but throughout the country," said Abdullah, an opposition leader with strong support in northern Afghanistan, especially among the ethnic Tajik community and loyalists of the former Northern Alliance militia.
There already had been widespread reports that Abdullah was under pressure from angry backers to declare himself the victor in the contest against former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, and that he was resisting their pressure. A report by the New York Times on Tuesday suggested the outlook for Afghanistan was even direr than publicly known — that Abdullah's backers were ready to march on the palace. Abdullah did not specifically deny the report.
The 53-year-old veteran of the movement that resisted the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s and swept into Kabul after it allied with U.S. forces following the 9/11 attacks said he decided on the deal with Ahmadzai for an audited ballot return followed by a national unity government because "this was the right decision for the country, and for the future of the country."
But his demeanor indicated he is still bitter that many ballots may have been cast illegally for his opponent. "We didn't need this and we don't need this," said Abdullah, who has had experience of vote fraud before — he reluctantly conceded the 2009 presidential election to Karzai in spite of widespread reports of stuffed ballot boxes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry swept into Afghanistan Friday to try to engineer a way out of the dispute, and by shortly before midnight on Saturday, the two candidates were at Kerry's side declaring they had found a way out of the deadlock.
Still, Afghanistan's serious challenges were underscored yet again Tuesday when a suicide car bomb exploded in Paktia province in a busy market near a mosque. Officials reported at least 89 killed, which would make it the largest single suicide attack since 2001, the year the Taliban fled the capital and later resumed a guerrilla campaign against the new Western-backed Afghan government.
"People were shocked and we are shocked, but this is the sad reality of Afghanistan," said Abdullah.
On a brighter note, he said he had just held his first meeting with Ahmadzai since the declaration of the political accord — "our first meeting one-on-one after quite a while." They embraced at Ahmadzai's home and Abdullah said he invited Ahmadzai to continue their planning at his home in two days.
He suggested that they would be able to work together, no matter whom the internationally supervised ballot audit eventually declares a winner.
"Before the elections, before both of us becoming candidates, we used to both of us get together to meet. We used to discuss issues," Abdullah said. He said they discussed how, together, they would "strengthen the trust of the people over the process."
Abdullah said the formula for the national unity government still needs to be worked out.
"I think now we have a better prospect for the future of this country. One is that the technical side, the votes of the people of Afghanistan, will be counted, will be audited — thoroughly — through ... an internationally supervised mechanism. That was the key for us because the legitimacy of the future government of Afghanistan is important."
"Then there is framework for cooperation between both sides in political terms — based on the agendas for reform for good governance, for strengthening the national unity, and so that is also good," he said.
"Hopefully everything will stay in the right track."
He confirmed that the agreement envisages, eventually, a constitutional grand council, or Loya Jirga, that could see Afghanistan switch to a parliamentary form of government with both a president and a prime minister.
"That has been our idea. This has been a part of our platform for many, many years," he said. "So that is something that will help Afghanistan, but it's a long way to go."
On the walls of an alcove of Abdullah's study were two portraits of his mentor and friend, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic Northern Alliance commander who was killed by al-Qaida assassins posing as journalists just before the 9/11 attacks. The road leading to Abdullah's house is closed to traffic for security, and soldiers and guards wearing the pakhool hats of the Northern Alliance fighters screened visitors carefully.
Abdullah said it has taken Afghanistan 13 years to reach a stage in nation-building that is still "a mess." He said Karzai had had better opportunities than any leader in Afghanistan's history — military backing, billions of dollars in support from the international community, and a sense of national consensus in the beginning.
"That opportunity was not utilized in the best way. I have no doubt that Afghanistan could have been a very different place."
But despite that, he said he has hope that it is not too late.
"There is an opportunity — that opportunity will not be there forever," he said. "We need to save Afghanistan."