A vote for president looks likely in late September or October, despite a string of attacks on election workers and voters that have been blamed on Taliban militants.
But Afghan officials say worries about logistics and intimidation by warlords could yet push the election of a 249-seat parliament — a far more difficult vote to organize — into next year.
President Hamid Karzai and members of the U.N.-sponsored electoral commission emerged from a meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul without a final deal.
"We can have the presidential election," said Agriculture Minister Hussain Anwari. "But the commission says it needs six months for the parliamentary vote."
Karzai is expected to defeat a half-dozen challengers for the top job, securing a five-year-term — and perhaps giving President George Bush a foreign policy success before he faces the American electorate in November.
The election was originally set for June, but was postponed to September to allow more time to register voters and demobilize unruly militias.
With more delay looming, Afghan officials now talk of holding the vote in the Afghan month of September, which runs from Sept. 22-Oct. 21 under a solar calendar.
Originally, voters were also to concurrently elect a new parliament as they choose a president. But officials say that the two votes may now be separated.
Anwari said the government wanted both polls wrapped up before November — before the harsh winter sets in — crowning a two-and-a-half-year drive to stabilize the country after a U.S. bombing campaign drove the Taliban from power at the end of 2001.
But the United Nations is concerned that if the parliamentary vote is held too soon, anti-Taliban warlords who allied with the United States will consolidate their grip on the country after the failed drive to disarm them.
Only about a quarter of the militiamen supposed to disarm by the end of June have given in their weapons. No new deadlines have been set.
Electoral officials also have no census data to calculate the distribution of seats in parliament, and there are no laws yet on campaign finance or media access for 2,000 expected candidates.
Said Mohammed Azam, spokesman for the electoral commission in which the United Nations holds half the seats, declined to give details of Tuesday's talks. He said the timetable should be settled "quite soon" — although it wasn't immediately clear if more talks were scheduled for reaching a final decision.
So far, about six million Afghans have registered to vote, out of an estimated 10 million eligible.
Registration has also been uneven, with election teams still unable to enter parts of the Pashtun-dominated south rocked by a series of Taliban attacks apparently designed to disrupt the process.
In the latest reported incident, dozens of suspected Taliban attacked a school used as a voter registration site in southern Kandahar province, shooting one election worker in the leg.
Three female election workers were fatally injured June 26 when a bomb hit their vehicle in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Taliban supporters claimed responsibility.
The day before, Taliban gunmen executed as many as 17 men in Uruzgan province after finding that they were carrying voter ID cards, Afghan officials said.