Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will delay his inauguration until March 9, his office said Wednesday, after Washington warned Kabul against allowing an election spat to derail a historic deal to withdraw American troops.
The war-torn country went to the polls last September but Ghani was only declared victorious last week. The announcement he had won a second term was immediately rejected by rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has vowed to form his own parallel government.
Their bickering has cast a shadow over efforts to forge an agreement between the US and the Taliban that could ultimately see the end of America’s longest war and launch Afghanistan into an uncertain future.
That accord, due to be signed in Doha on Saturday, would see thousands of US troops withdrawn from Afghanistan after more than 18 years, in return for various security commitments from the Taliban and a pledge to hold talks with Ghani’s government in the capital Kabul.
Ghani made no reference to the talks in Wednesday’s announcement, saying only that the delay was due to “rumours about the spread of coronavirus” and to allow foreign dignitaries more time to make travel plans.
Abdullah has also planned to hold his own inauguration but the date remains unclear.
Washington fears the ongoing row between the pair could hurt Kabul’s negotiating position and leave the insurgents with the upper hand in Doha.
“It is time to focus not on electoral politics, but on taking steps toward a lasting peace,” a US State Department spokeswoman said in a Tuesday statement.
The Taliban, US and Afghan forces have preceded the deal with a partial week-long truce that entered its fifth day on Wednesday.
While the ongoing truce does not amount to a full ceasefire, the number of Taliban attacks has fallen dramatically.
The situation remains tenuous however, with the interior ministry reporting four deaths — including three civilians — in five attacks on Wednesday.
Another nine civilians were injured in a separate bombing in Kabul the same day. The Taliban, which has vowed not to attack urban areas as part of the truce, immediately denied responsibility.
The election and the infighting which followed has strained the patience of the international community and ordinary citizens exhausted after years of fighting.
Afghans have shown little enthusiasm for Abdullah, Ghani or the election process in general, with most of them abstaining from voting in last year’s lacklustre poll that saw candidates pitch few new ideas.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad urged the president and other leaders on Wednesday to “ensure that the new government is inclusive and reflects the aspirations of all Afghans”.