Afghanistan's election rivals signed an agreement Sunday forming a unity government with former finance minister Ashraf Ghani as president, ending a months-long standoff over a disputed runoff vote.
The brief signing ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul paved the way for the first democratic transition of power ever in Afghanistan, and for the resignation of President Hamid Karzai after 13 years in power.
It also marked a victory for the Obama administration, which had cajoled Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah to accept the U.S.-backed compromise after more than two months of difficult negotiations and an intense diplomatic effort by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The agreement calls for Ghani – who was deemed the winner of the controversial runoff after an audit of votes supervised by the United Nations – to become the president and share substantial powers with a newly created prime minister-type position. That post, called chief executive officer, would represent Abdullah's campaign, but it was not immediately clear whether Abdullah himself would occupy the post.
The candidates haggled over the details until Friday, ending in a delicate compromise of questionable durability. After alleging a conspiracy to rig the June 14 runoff vote in Ghani's favor, Abdullah withdrew from the audit process while his supporters briefly floated the possibility of creating a parallel government that U.S. officials worried could further destabilize the country.
In a sign of the tensions, the final runoff results were not officially released. At a short news conference in Kabul, Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, simply named Ghani the winner and congratulated Abdullah as the chief executive officer, wishing the government "great success" but fielding no questions.
The announcement followed an equally terse ceremony at the presidential palace at which Ghani and Abdullah shook hands to applause. Neither candidate addressed the media. Although Karzai helped broker the deal in its final days, he did not sign the agreement, wanting not to "insert himself in the negotiation process," according to an aide.
U.S. officials have been deeply worried that the election dispute could destabilize Afghanistan and threaten a bilateral security agreement that would allow for as many as 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led NATO coalition's mandate expires at the end of December. Ghani has said signing the pact would be one of his first acts as president.
The strategic pact will provide for continued funding and training of more than 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police. U.S. military officials say the training mission is necessary, particularly as Taliban insurgents launch a fresh wave of operations throughout Afghanistan, including in the southern province of Helmand, where hundreds of Afghan soldiers and police are believed to have been killed in recent months of fighting.
In recent weeks, President Obama called the candidates three times to urge a compromise. Kerry made two trips to Kabul and more than two dozen phone calls, warning that failure to reach an agreement could jeopardize billions of dollars in U.S. financial assistance to Afghanistan.
State Department officials said that Kerry invoked bitter memories of his 2004 presidential election defeat to George W. Bush, recalling how he decided against contesting a narrow defeat in the state of Ohio, which sealed the race for his rival.
"We've had our own contentious elections and witnessed their aftermath. I've lived some of them," Kerry said in a statement Sunday. "But if my recent visits to Kabul and the hours upon hours on the phone with these two men have taught me anything, it's how invested Afghanistan is in this historic effort."
The White House congratulated Ghani and Abdullah, saying the agreement "helps bring closure to Afghanistan's political crisis, and restores confidence in the way forward."
According to the agreement, the chief executive, to be nominated by the election runner-up, "will be answerable to the president," manage the implementation of government policies, help select certain non-cabinet posts and chair weekly meetings of the heads of government ministries.
But the president remains head of state and government, and does not lose any constitutional powers.
The chief executive will be announced by the president on the inauguration date, which has not been set.
After Abdullah's campaign alleged widespread fraud in the runoff vote, Kerry flew to Kabul in July and got the candidates to agree in principle to form a unity government and endorse a U.N.-supervised audit of all 8 million votes cast.
Ghani, a former finance minister who secured less than 3% of the vote in 2009, was believed to have a roughly 10% advantage in the final tally over Abdullah, the former foreign minister who led after the initial election on April 5.
Ghani, a former World Bank economist, has also promised to bolster Afghanistan's flagging, donor-dependent economy by pledging to create 500,000 jobs for youth.
Ghani's path to the presidency was anything but smooth. He initially faced widespread criticism over his selection of Abdul Rashid Dostum -- an Uzbek militia leader whom some Afghans regard as a warlord -- as a running mate. Ghani once referred to Dostum as a "known killer," but eventually embraced a man who was seen as able to deliver votes from the Uzbek minority.
A member of an influential Pashtun nomad family, Ghani also faced accusations that he spurned the Tajik minority, which threw most of its support to Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun heritage. But in campaigning for the June runoff, Ghani secured the backing of Ahmed Zia Massood, the brother of slain Tajik militia commander Ahmed Shah Massood.
Preliminary runoff results gave Ghani a lead of about 1 million votes out of 8 million cast, a dramatic turnaround from the first round of balloting in which he finished a distant second to Abdullah. Abdullah released audio recordings that he claimed showed election officials conspiring to rig votes in Ghani's favor.
Ghani repeatedly denied the allegations of fraud. One senior election official resigned over the allegations but denied wrongdoing.
The U.N.-supervised audit of votes also was marred by delays, fights, and continued fraud allegations by Abdullah's campaign. The audit lasted 48 days, and by the end Abdullah withdrew from the process, saying the U.N. had ignored his concerns and not tossed out all fraudulent votes.
Latifi is a Times special correspondent. Staff writer Bengali reported from Mumbai, India.