Afghanistan's two presidential candidates signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday that makes one president and the other chief executive, ending months of political wrangling following a disputed runoff that threatened to plunge the country into turmoil and complicate the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Ending an election season that began with first-round ballots cast in April, the election commission named Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as the winner and next president. But the commission pointedly did not release final vote totals amid suggestions that doing so could inflame tensions.
Ghani Ahmadzai and new Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah signed the national unity government deal as President Hamid Karzai – in power since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban – looked on. It took weeks of negotiations to form a power-sharing arrangement after accusations of fraud in the June runoff vote.
The candidates signed the deal at the presidential palace, then exchanged a hug and a handshake.
"I am very happy today that both of my brothers, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, in an Afghanagreement for the benefit of this country, for the progress and development of this country, that they agreed on the structure affirming the new government of Afghanistan," Karzai said after the signing.
The deal is a victory for US Secretary of State John Kerry, who first got the candidates to agree in principle to share power during a July visit to Afghanistan. Kerry returned to Kabul in August and has spent hours with the candidates, including in repeated phone calls, in an effort to seal the deal.
A White House statement lauded the two leaders, saying the agreement helps bring closure to Afghanistan's political crisis.
"This agreement marks an important opportunity for unity and increased stability in Afghanistan. We continue to call on all Afghans – including political, religious, and civil society leaders – to support this agreement and to come together in calling for cooperation and calm," the White House statement said.
Jan Kubis, the top UN official in Afghanistan, said the uncertainty of the past months took a heavy toll on Afghanistan's security, economy and governance. NATO said in a statement that it hoped both leaders could move forward "in the spirit of genuine political partnership."
The decision not to release vote totals underscores the fear of potential violence despite Sunday's deal. One of Abdullah's final demands was that the election commission not release the vote count because of the fraud he alleges took place.
Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, chairman of the election commission, said the final ballot counts have been shared with both candidates and that the commission would announce the numbers publicly later.
A Ghani Ahmadzai supporter – Halim Fidai, a former governor – said Sunday that Kubish, the UN representative, told the commission not to release vote tallies. A UN official who insisted on anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly said the allegation was not true and that the UN was only facilitating dialogue between the candidates and the election commission regarding the release of the results.
A senior US official said the vote result is transparent but may be released slowly over fears of violence. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified publicly.
Ghani Admadzai supporters and election commission reports circulating on social media said that the final vote gave Ghani Ahmadzai roughly 55 percent and Abdullah roughly 45 percent.
The four-page power sharing contract says the relationship between president and chief executive – a position akin to prime minister – must be defined by "partnership, collegiality, collaboration, and, most importantly, responsibility to the people of Afghanistan."
It spells out the powers for the new chief executive position: participation with the president in bilateral meetings, carrying out administrative and executive affairs as determined by presidential decree, and parity in selection of key security and economic ministries.
The deal specifies that the president leads the Cabinet but that the chief executive manages the Cabinet's implementation of government policies. The chief executive will also chair regular meetings of a council of ministers.
An inauguration ceremony to see Ghani Ahmadzai replace Karzai as president and swear in Abdullah as chief executive was expected within days. Abdullah's spokesman Fazel Sancharaki said the event could be held on Sept. 29.
As talks dragged on, Abdullah's mostly northern supporters had threatened to form a parallel government or react violently to any outright victory by Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official whose power base is in the country's south and east. Ghani Ahmadzai said he always maintained that ethnic politics in Afghanistan demand some sort of power sharing deal and not a winner-takes-all government.
Abdullah believes he won the first round of the election in April with more than 50 percent of the vote, which would have precluded a runoff. But the official results showed him winning about 45 percent of that vote in a crowded presidential field of 10.
He also believes he won a June runoff with Ghani Ahmadzai. But initial results totals showed Ghani Ahmadzai with about 56 percent of the vote. After the recount the election commission invalidated 1 million of the approximately 8.1 million cast in the runoff, according to the un-released vote counts, suggesting that fraud was indeed widespread.
Though the White House statement said that "respect for the democratic process" is the only viable path forward for Afghanistan, the next Afghan government to many has the appearance of a product of more of negotiations than vote tallies.
A power-sharing deal was almost sealed about a week ago, but Abdullah then demanded that no vote totals from the runoff be released.
The US official said the United States government believes the new president was declared as the result of quantitative electoral results from many millions of legitimate votes and that though a political agreement was made to form a unity government the government is headed by a president decided upon by an electoral process.
UN and Afghan election officials spent weeks auditing the runoff results after allegations of fraud, a common occurrence over Afghanistan's last two presidential elections. Abdullah's side maintained the fraud was so sophisticated it was undetectable.
The US has been pushing for a resolution so the next president can sign a security agreement that would allow about 10,000 US forces to remain in the country after combat operations wrap up at the end of the year. Karzai refused to sign it; Ghani Ahmadzai has said he will.
The 13-year war against the Taliban has largely been turned over to Afghan security forces, a development that has seen casualties among Afghan soldiers rise significantly this year.
The US and international community will continue to fund the Afghan army in the coming years but the Afghans themselves will have to fend off Taliban attempts to again take over wide areas of the country.
The US White House issued a statement Sunday applauding the decision.
"This agreement marks an important opportunity for unity and increased stability in Afghanistan," the statement reads. "We continue to call on all Afghans – including political, religious, and civil society leaders – to support this agreement and to come together in calling for cooperation and calm."