Afghanistan: Presidential rivals Ghani and Abdullah choose unity to fight Taliban as Nato troops prepare to quit

New administration faces huge challenge in fighting an emboldened Taliban-led insurgency while still paying its bills amid plummeting tax revenue

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Afghanistan’s rival presidential candidates signed a deal to share power today, after months of turmoil over a disputed election that has destabilised the country just as most foreign troops prepare to leave.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who will be named president, embraced rival Abdullah Abdullah after they signed the agreement at a ceremony watched by outgoing president Hamid Karzai.

The new administration faces huge challenges, both in fighting an emboldened Taliban-led insurgency and in paying its bills amid plummeting tax revenue.

It will also be expected to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans even as aid flows fall and contracts with the Nato-led coalition dry up at the end of the year, when most foreign troops will quit the country.


The accord was brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who swiftly welcomed its signing. “These two men have put the people of Afghanistan first, and they’ve ensured that the first peaceful democratic transition in the history of their country begins with national unity,” he said.

Under the deal, the election winner will govern with a chief executive proposed by the runner-up, sharing control over executive decisions and who leads key institutions such as the Afghan army.

One of Mr Ghani’s first acts would be to sign a long-delayed bilateral security agreement with the United States. He has previously declared support for the pact, which would allow a small force of foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

There is a risk that any instability in Afghanistan could be exploited by neighbours such as Pakistan, whose meddling in Afghan affairs have inflamed conflicts that have dogged the country for decades.

“A difficult and challenged unity structure is still preferable to conflict between these two groups,” said one US official. “Having them both working together within the government and direct their energies towards positive reform is, again, preferable to some of the alternatives.”

Mr Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, and Mr Abdullah, whose main support comes from the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Tajiks, face a difficult task forging unity in a country riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries.

Mr Abdullah’s accusation that the run-off election was rigged in Mr Ghani’s favour had raised fears of ethnic violence, which could have ignited a broader conflict.

“A spark could have dealt a strong blow to the political process if today’s deal had not happened,” said Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Centre for Strategic Studies. “But, we have crossed that moment.”

The final points of the deal were thrashed out late on Saturday night, as the Independent Election Commission prepared to release results of a UN-monitored audit of all 8 million ballots cast in the June run-off.

But today it was unclear whether the size of Mr Ghani’s winning margin would be announced, as Mr Abdullah’s team has argued that the audit failed to properly adjudicate on fraud.

The disputed preliminary count had shown a win for Mr Ghani with 56 per cent of the vote.