Afghanistan’s Ghani urges unity after disputed election

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai moved to unite Afghanistan a day after he reached a power-sharing deal with his main rival to avoid potential violence following disputed elections that risked splitting the war-torn country.

“I ask all Afghans to leave the past behind,” Ghani, a 65-year-old former World Bank economist, said in the first speech since he became president-elect Sunday. “Let’s use every minute to work for the development of the country and a better future.”

Ghani called for Afghan refugees to return and said girls would be the future leaders of the male-dominated country. He said runner-up Abdullah Abdullah, 54, is now part of the same team after he agreed to become the government’s chief executive officer, a position that will require a presidential decree.

Ghani faces the challenge of overhauling Afghanistan’s political system, rooting out endemic corruption and boosting growth in Asia’s poorest country – all while fighting off a Taliban insurgency. The United States is pushing Ghani to sign a security pact that would allow American troops to stay beyond this year and unlock billions of dollars in aid money.

The new government “will never be acceptable,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in an emailed statement Monday. He vowed to continue an armed struggle until a pure Islamic administration comes to power and foreign forces leave.

Outgoing President Hamid Karzai, who refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, will vacate his office Tuesday, according to a statement. Ghani will be sworn into office on Sept. 29.

As Ghani seeks to look forward, tensions are still lingering over the two-round, six-month election process that ended Monday. Afghanistan’s poll commission didn’t release the results of an audited vote count, raising questions about the prospect for democracy in a nation where tribal leaders are often more powerful than elected politicians.

“We don’t consider this a full stop to the overall presidential election process as the audited tallies were not made public, undermining the election process and raising questions to technical process of the election.” the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a local election observing organization, said in email.

Afghan television and social media reported the final breakdown as about 55 percent for Ghani and almost 45 percent for Abdullah. Those mirror initial tallies released in July that gave Ghani 56 percent and Abdullah 44 percent.

The United Nations’ representative office in Kabul told election officials to keep the vote tallies secret to avoid any violence nationwide, according to Mohammad Halim Fedai, a Ghani aide. Ari Gaitanis, a U.N. spokesman, declined to comment on Fedai’s claims.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, won the most votes in the first round in April, while falling short of the 50 percent threshold to avoid a June runoff. Initial results showed Ghani winning the second round, prompting Abdullah to boycott the vote count. He alleged fraudulent votes weren’t invalidated, triggering a complete audit of all ballot boxes.

The four-page power-sharing accord calls for Afghanistan to change its constitution and overhaul election laws. The CEO will lead weekly Cabinet meetings, participate in bilateral meetings, help appoint senior officials and sit on the National Security Council. He will report to the president.

“I won’t sacrifice Afghanistan’s stability for anything,” Ghani said Monday.

The U.S. spent about $93 billion in military and economic assistance to Afghanistan from the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001 through September 2013, with a further $6.1 billion budgeted for this year, the Congressional Research Service said in May. As of Sept. 19, 2,346 Americans have died in the war.

Increased security is key for Afghanistan to tap mineral resources estimated at $3 trillion. Foreign grants pay for about 50 percent of the government’s expenditure, according to World Bank estimates.

“The mediation efforts by the U.S. and others since June have paid off for now,” Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France, said by email. “They cannot dismiss the investments of the past 13 years nor can they jeopardize the security situation at a time when the Middle East and Islamic countries are facing new challenges in the form of ISIS.”

The Obama administration plans to reduce this year’s deployment of more than 30,000 troops to about 9,800 by the start of next year. That number would be reduced by about half by the end of next year and cut again to a small security force for the U.S. embassy in Kabul by the end of 2016.

Ghani is a Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004. He lived outside of the country for more than 20 years while Afghanistan was mired in conflict with the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.

Ghani received a doctorate degree from Columbia University and taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins University, according to his website. During his tenure at the World Bank, he spent time in Russia, China and India managing large-scale development projects, it said.

Abdullah is half Pashtun and half Tajik. He was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, who’s seen by many Afghans as a national hero. They fought together against the Soviets and the Taliban.

The two men have complementary skills and must work together for the benefit of the nation, said Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based political and security analyst.

“A coalition government is good news for Afghanistan and its people as it will help prevent any chaos and crisis,” Kohistani said. “It’s time for both candidates to set aside their anger and work together for the development of Afghanistan.”

– With assistance from Kartikay Mehrotra, Jeanette Rodrigues and Natalie Obiko Pearson in New Delhi.