KABUL: Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said Saturday that his country was entering "a new phase" in an interview with AFP, raising hopes that a bitter dispute over fraud-tainted elections might soon be resolved.
Abdullah and his bitter rival Ashraf Ghani vowed Friday to work together whoever becomes president in a unity government deal that was overseen by US Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to Kabul to mediate an end to the impasse.
The feud threatens to revive ethnic conflict in the war-weary nation as US-led NATO troops withdraw after more than a decade in the country.
"I'm hopeful but I'm not saying that we are at the end of the road. We are at the beginning of a new phase," Abdullah told AFP.
Abdullah had refused to accept preliminary results from the second round of voting that put Ghani ahead, a reversal of the first round where he came out strongly in the lead.
Both candidates accused each other of trying to steal the election by massive ballot-box stuffing.
The feuding opponents agreed to an audit of all 8.1 million votes cast during the second round of voting under a previous deal overseen by Kerry but it soon frayed due to disagreements.
Under the terms of the new agreement, a national unity government will undertake a comprehensive political reform programme.
A new position -- "government chief executive officer" -- will be created by presidential decree.
Within two years, after constitutional changes, the position of "executive prime minister" will also be created, raising the possibility of the two men's camps working in tandem whoever is declared the winner.
Abdullah stressed that the vote audit must be completed in time to have a new president before a NATO summit in Britain on September 4-5 -- a key demand of the US.
The summit is scheduled to endorse a US-led NATO "training and advisory" mission in Afghanistan next year after all foreign combat troops withdraw by December.
"The timeline is a concern for everybody including our friends. We are aiming to achieve that goal of the completion of the audit before the NATO summit and the announcement of the new president," he said.
But he added that his supporters would only accept the result if the audit was "legitimate," raising concerns of future disagreements between the two camps.
"If our people, our supporters are convinced about the legitimacy of the process they will accept it the same that I will accept it," he said.
NATO members have expressed reluctance to make costly commitments if Afghanistan fails to complete its first democratic transfer of power -- a key goal of the massive international military and aid effort since 2001.
Taliban insurgents have launched new operations in the south and east in recent months, and violence is increasing across the country according to several independent reports.
US-led foreign troop numbers have declined from a peak of 150,000 in 2012 to just 44,300 now, and NATO combat operations are winding down fast after 13 years of fighting that have failed to defeat the Taliban.
Western nations that have sent troops and billions of dollars worth of aid to Afghanistan since 2001 still hope that a credible election will be a flagship legacy of progress made since the austere Taliban era.
The dangers of international military intervention were underlined this week when a rogue Afghan soldier shot dead a US general at an army training centre in Kabul, wounding more than a dozen others including a senior German officer.