Afghanistan's presidential rivals signed a US-brokered power-sharing deal Sunday, an agreement that attempts to quell months of political turbulence following a disputed election that has further exposed the country's economic and security vulnerabilities as foreign troops prepare to withdraw.
The electoral commission has refused to release final ballot numbers for each candidate, but announced Ashraf Ghani as Afghanistan's new president Sunday. The first round of elections began in April and continued until June amid accusations of mass fraud in the runoff vote.
Ghani's rival Abdullah Abdullah was named chief executive, a position equivalent to prime minister, as part of the power-sharing agreement. At Sunday's signing ceremony, the pair shook hands and embraced in front of cameras, a muted crowd, and Afghanistan's outgoing President Hamid Karzai at his palace in Kabul.
Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah signed an agreement on a government of national unity in Kabul on September 21.
"I am very happy today that both of my brothers, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, in an Afghan agreement for the benefit of this country, for the progress and development of this country, that they agreed on the structure affirming the new government of Afghanistan," Karzai said at the signing.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered the deal after long and intense negotiations, praised both men for putting "the people of Afghanistan first."
"They've ensured that the first peaceful democratic transition in the history of their country begins with national unity," Kerry was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Starting off the next five years in office on the right foot may begin with words and ink, but the two leaders face immense challenges in the coming months to fix a nation that faces a growing Taliban insurgency and the withdrawal of aid and most foreign troops by the end of the year.
Despite the country's flailing economy, made worse by budget shortfalls and security woes during the protracted election, millions of Afghan citizens expressed hope for a new democracy by turning out to vote, even amid death threats from the Taliban.
The power-sharing deal has, for now, also put aside fears that a contested election could push supporters of both camps to commit sectarian violence that could lead to a broader civil conflict.
Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun whose supporters largely reside in the country's south and eastern regions, while Abdullah, whose mother belongs to Afghanistan's second largest ethnic body, the Tajiks, enjoys a strong following from that group in the north.
Last minute negotiations for the agreement were wrangled Saturday night, ending with a document that states both parties must act in "partnership, collegiality, collaboration, and, most importantly, responsibility to the people of Afghanistan."
The deal will grant Ghani, a former finance minister, and Abdullah, a former foreign minister, joint control over a range of administrative and executive functions, including security issues, economic matters, and the appointment of ministries.
The electoral commission's decision not to release the final tally of the 8 million votes for the June runoff election was based on fears of renewed violence. Abdullah initially demanded no total be released last week, saying the ballot counting was thorough enough to reveal any fraud.
The outcome is seen as a victory for the US, which has been seeking to advance a negotiated bilateral security agreement that will be among one of the first acts Ghani will sign after his swearing in ceremony, expected to take place next week.
The security accord would allow the US to keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2024, long after combat operations wind down at the end of this year. Karzai had previously refused to agree with the terms but Ghani and Abdullah have both said they support the deal.
US troops have remained in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban from power in 2001, largely turning over security operations to the Afghan army in recent months.
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