Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was sworn in for a second term on Monday but his main rival for the top job refused to recognize the inauguration, holding his own swearing-in ceremony as a rival president.
Television footage showed Ghani taking an oath at the presidential palace in Kabul at a ceremony attended by a number of foreign diplomats, including U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
The presidential candidate and rival in a disputed election Abdullah Abdullah held his own ceremony at a similar time, suggesting talks between the two camps and Khalilzad aimed at brokering an agreement had not been successful.
The U.S.-Taliban deal signed just over a week ago was touted as Washington's effort to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan and was seen by many Afghans as the best opportunity yet for bringing an end to relentless wars.
But President Ashraf Ghani, who was declared the winner of last September's election and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who charged fraud in the vote along with the elections complaints commission, have refused to settle their differences.
The two ceremonies were held at the same time, Ghani's in the presidential palace and Abdullah’s next door in the Sapedar Palace, both packed with each rival’s supporters.
In a sign of international support for Ghani, his ceremony – aired on state TV – was attended by Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as several foreign dignitaries including the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires and Tadamichi Yamamoto, the U.N. Secretary General's personal representative to Afghanistan.
At Abdullah’s inauguration, aired on private Tolo TV, among those present were so-called "jihadi' commanders, who were among those who allied with the U.S.-led coalition to topple the Taliban in 2001. Those commanders also participated in the brutal civil war of the 1990s, raising fears that the divisions among Afghan leaders could lead to violence.
When Washington and the Taliban insurgents signed their accord on Feb. 29, the next crucial step was that Afghans would sit down and negotiate a road map for their country's future. They are looking to hammer out such thorny issues as women's rights, free speech and the fate of tens of thousands of armed men on both sides of the 18-year war. Those negotiations were set to be held Tuesday in Oslo.
But the dispute between the top two candidates in last year's presidential election over who actually won means the Afghan government side appears unable to present a united front.
The U.S. has said its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be linked to the Taliban keeping their counterterrorism promises but not to the success of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Afghanistan's election commission has declared incumbent President Ashraf Ghani as the winner of September's vote. His former partner in a unity government, chief executive Abdullah, as well as the election complaints commission, say the results are fraught with irregularities. As a result, both Ghani and Abdullah declared themselves winners.
The two candidates are also backed by warlords who have a stake in who becomes president, complicating negotiations to break the stalemate being conducted by Khalilzad.