KABUL, Sept. 30: Afghanistan inaugurated its first new president in a decade on Monday, swearing in technocrat Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government just as the withdrawal of most foreign troops presents a crucial test.
The first democratic handover of power in Afghan history has been far from smooth: the deal for a unity government was cobbled together after months of deadlock over a vote in which both Ghani and opponent Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory.
The inauguration marks the end of an era with the departure of President Hamid Karzai, the only leader Afghans have known since a US-led invasion and occupation of the country in 2001 after the overthrow of the Taliban.
Illustrating the problems facing the new president, a suicide bomber killed seven people at a security checkpoint near Kabul airport just before Ghani was sworn in, a government official said. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Later, ending months of uncertainty over the future US role in Afghanistan, the US embassy announced Ghani would on Tuesday send a representative to sign a security agreement with the United States allowing a small continent of troops to remain.
In his inaugural speech, Ghani appealed to the Taliban and other militants to join peace talks and put an end to more than a decade of violence. Thousands of Afghans are killed each year in the insurgency. “Security is a main demand of our people, and we are tired of this war,” Ghani said. “I am calling on the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami to prepare for political negotiations.” Hezb-i-Islami is a rebel faction loosely allied with the Taliban. Ghani also vowed to crack down on rampant corruption and called for cooperation within the coalition government. “A national unity government is not about sharing power, but about working together,” Ghani said in his speech that lasted for nearly an hour.
But signs of tension are already appearing in the fragile coalition. A dispute over office space and whether Abdullah would speak at the inauguration led to threats his camp would boycott Monday’s ceremony, an Abdullah aide said, adding it was resolved after late-night meetings with the US ambassador. The inauguration marks the end of an era with the departure of President Hamid Karzai, the only leader Afghans have known since a US-led invasion and occupation of the country in 2001 after the overthrow of the Taliban.
Ghani’s first act after being sworn in was to sign a decree creating the post of chief executive. Abdullah was sworn in to that job moments later, and he made a speech before Ghani – a departure from the original programme. The specially created post carries powers similar to those of a prime minister. Both foreign backers and Afghans hope that Ghani and Abdullah can put aside their acrimonious election rivalry and work to improve life in a country that has suffered war and poverty for decades. Even if its top figures can work together, the government inherits massive problems, including fighting an emboldened Taliban who in recent months has been launching ever-more aggressive attacks as foreign troops draw down.
Monday’s suicide bombing in Kabul killed four members of the security forces and three civilian passers-by, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujadid said the bomber was targeting Afghan and foreign forces. Also on Monday, four suicide attackers killed eight people near a government office in the eastern province of Paktia, said police official Azimullah, who uses just one name. Ghani must also reset relations with the United States, which have soured in recent years under Karzai.