HED: Rocket blasts target Afghanistan presidential inauguration, adding more chaos to peace process
KABUL, Afghanistan — Rocket blasts briefly interrupted the swearing-in ceremony Monday of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which took place as his chief rival in last year’s election for the country’s highest office held his own inauguration nearby.
At least five rockets were shot in the direction of the presidential palace shortly after Ghani took the oath of office before a crowd of hundreds including U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who led peace talks with the Taliban, and the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller.
The blasts, which were heard several miles away, sent some people at the ceremony running for cover, but Ghani appeared unintimidated and, minutes later, picked up his acceptance speech where he’d left off – talking about pine nuts and the economy.
“We have seen big attacks,” Ghani said. “A couple of explosions shouldn’t scare us.”
As he was sworn in, Ghani’s chief rival in last year’s election, former chief executive of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah, held his own inauguration.
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission last month declared Ghani the winner of September’s presidential poll, but Abdullah said the election had been marred by irregularities and rejected the result.
The feud between the two men over who won the election could delay the next step in the peace process – the start of talks between the government and the Taliban to chart the way forward for Afghanistan after more than 18 years of war. The Feb. 29 peace deal signed by the Americans and the Taliban stipulates that those talks should begin Tuesday.
Addressing the crowd gathered on the grounds of the presidential palace for his inauguration, Ghani said negotiations to firm up details of the intra-Afghan talks would be concluded by Tuesday. He did not indicate when the talks would begin or where they would take place.
An announcement on a prisoner release, which was also a key part of the U.S.-Taliban deal, would be made later this week, he said. The Taliban have insisted that thousands of their fighters be released from government prisons before direct negotiations with the government can begin.
As Ghani called for unity among Afghans, his presidential rival Abdullah had a similar message for his supporters, urging them to stop shouting death chants against Ghani.
Monday’s simultaneous swearing-in ceremonies were yet another reminder that a stable democracy has not taken shape in Afghanistan, despite nearly two decades of U.S.-led reconstruction efforts in the country, where American troops have been embroiled in their longest war.
If the intra-Afghan talks happen and the Taliban fulfill other commitments outlined in the deal with the U.S. – such as halting attacks on foreign forces and preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base for operations – American and international troops could begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in a little over a year.
This is the third presidential result that Abdullah has contested. After the previous election in 2014, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker a deal, which created the position of chief executive for Abdullah and named Ghani president.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.