KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Declaring his nation "is not Iraq," one of two contestants in Afghanistan's deadlocked presidential election told The Associated Press on Monday that both he and his rival are committed to lead their war-ravaged nation inclusively in cooperation with international partners.
Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai credited a U.S.-brokered deal for a full ballot audit with pulling his country back from the brink, putting the rule of law and government legitimacy back on track.
"What happened in the last days should show you our commitment to inclusiveness," Ahmadzai said of the deal for a national unity government, reached late Saturday with his opponent, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
He said there can be no comparison to Iraq, where politicians from the two main Muslim sects and ethnic Kurds have failed to reach a political accord to either keep or replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In the meantime, Sunni militants have routed the Iraqi army and seized control of much of the country, even threatening to attack the capital, just 30 months after U.S. forces pulled out.
"I am not Maliki and Afghanistan is not Iraq," Ahmadzai added sharply.
It was the only time in the interview that he obliquely suggested he would emerge after the ballot audit as president, instead referring respectfully to Abdullah and the need to let the process take its course.
Ahmadzai revealed that he and Abdullah would meet face to face at his home Tuesday to begin fleshing out the framework for a government, with participation from both camps and all communities in Afghanistan. He said he later expects to be hosted by Abdullah.
The former finance minister said his fears of a return to Afghanistan's darkest days helped motivate the two politicians' agreement. The negotiations, mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, were tense he said, but not dramatic, for him at least.
"It is the calmest I have been in my life," Ahmadzai recounted. "I have a characteristic that might be good or bad-- that when there are large stakes, I am like cold ice. There is no emotion."
Saturday's election deal has been hailed by Afghans of all stripes. Before Kerry stepped in, some feared a failure to agree on the election result would have splintered power and left the Western-backed government even more vulnerable to a Taliban insurgency.
Abdullah's political roots are in the Northern Alliance movement that opposed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and joined forces with the United States after 9/11. Ahmadzai is a Pashtu technocrat who spent decades outside of the country after the Soviet invasion of 1978, eventually working on development issues for the World Bank. He served as finance minister from 2002-2004.
Unofficial and disputed results have shown Ahmadzai well in the lead, but supporters of Abdullah charge that's only because of widespread vote fraud. Since fraud was alleged on both sides, the deal provides that every one of the 8 million ballots will be audited under national and international supervision over the next three or four weeks. Ahmadzai said it was his side's suggestion to do a full audit.
Erudite and an expert on financial governance and development, Ahmadzai has a slight, gentle appearance and speaks fluent English. The interview was conducted in a reception room at his home on the edge of Kabul.
He showed his wonky side, discussing what he sees as the path to prosperity for the country, taking advantage of its water resources, channeling remittances from Afghans working abroad and exploiting mineral deposits and rare earth ores wisely and not to the benefit of only a chosen few.
But all that will take security, accountability and rule of law to create a virtuous circle, he said.
He would in principle serve under Abdullah in some capacity if the election results go against him, Ahmadzai said. But he would not go into any detail and shrugged off any hint that Afghanistan might have a prime minister eventually in addition to a president.
"Let's wait for the results of the audit," he chuckled. "We've refrained from a declaration of victory. We are also going to refrain from a declaration of other eventualities."
Ahmadzai noted that both he and Abdullah are on record with their willingness to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States in their first days in office. He said the agreement would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country, while leaving Afghanistan with a tight timeline to get its own security sector in order.
At the same time, he says he is ready to negotiate with any Taliban who puts Afghanistan first.
"We must negotiate," he said. "What conflict do you know that is not ended through negotiation?"
But that does not go for the looming "violent networks" that are not confined to national boundaries and "want to disrupt order in any known form" -- including groups seeking an Islamic state, or caliphate, as Sunni militants have declared in Iraq.
One of the under-heralded achievements of the election, he said, was widespread participation by Afghans in the democratic process, even in areas where Taliban attacks and threats of reprisal were rife.
"When people choose ballots over bullets, it is an incredible step toward peace and I hope that this fact is appreciated," he said.
Ahmadzai attributed it to hard-won lessons for a people who have known war and destruction for two or three generations.
"The larger Middle East is imploding. But because we experienced the first wave, our people are incredibly wise," he said. "And even if at times we reach a brink, we will make sure that during these (next) five years, we are able to stop the very sense of brink and brinkmanship from developing."
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