Rival Afghan presidential candidates sign deal to cooperate

By Lesley Wroughton KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's rival presidential candidates have agreed in writing to work together to form a government of national unity, both candidates told a news conference, following meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday. A joint declaration signed by both candidates, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, did not provide details on the government framework, except to say that both sides would form commissions to work on its structure. "One of these men is going to be president, but both are going to be critical to the future of Afghanistan, no matter what," Kerry told reporters in Kabul. The joint declaration stated that the candidates would agree to a timeline for the electoral process and an inauguration date for the next president by the end of August. However, it did not appear to signal significant progress from the original deal, also brokered by Kerry when he was in Kabul in July, aimed at ending the bitter dispute between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. There were no fresh details of how a government of national unity might work, after meetings between Kerry and the Afghan candidates during his overnight stay. "The two parties affirm they are committed to sincerely cooperate ... and draw up the detailed text of the political agreement in light of the constitution and the political framework agreement reached on July 12," the declaration said. The power sharing deal, agreed verbally a month ago, was intended to reduce the risk of a violence flaring between the different ethnic groups represented by the two presidential hopefuls. COMPLAINTS OF MASS FRAUD Abdullah has complained of widespread fraud during the run-off election held in June, and the United Nations is supervising a full recount of all eight million votes as agreed during Kerry's earlier visit. That audit has been beset by delays and haggling, increasing the level of mistrust between the two camps. "This audit is not about winning and losing, it is about achieving a credible result that people of Afghanistan deserve," Kerry added. The two candidates, former finance minister Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah, stood by Kerry as he spoke. They appeared at ease, save for a moment of embarrassment when Kerry invited the next president of Afghanistan to answer a reporter's question and both stepped forward. In the end, Ghani took the podium first. The election was to mark Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power before most foreign troops pull out at the end of 2014. Afghanistan's Western backers hope an audit of votes will produce a legitimate president before a NATO summit in early September. "The audit was at a point where you could fairly easily predict that it was going to break down again," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, adding that Kerry appeared reassured by the candidates' promise to cooperate. Whether they were likely to agree on a unity government by the end-August deadline, however, remained to be seen. "It depends on how seriously they continue to take the audit, how contested the rules continue to be and whether they'll be able to maintain a level of trust." (Additional reporting by Krista Mahr; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White)