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Politics

Afghanistan's twin rulers: Can they work together?

Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani has been sworn in as Afghanistan's new president. He will share power with his rival Abdullah Abdullah. But will the two leaders be able to ensure an effective government?

Former President Hamid Karzai handed over power to the two democratically-elected leaders on Monday, September 29, at the presidential palace in Kabul.

Last week, Afghanistan's election commission named Ashraf Ghani the country's president shortly after the former World Bank economist and his electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah struck a power-sharing deal ending a months-long dispute over electoral fraud.

The agreement paved the way for the establishment of a national unity government where Abdullah fills the newly created position of chief executive officer, a post akin to prime minister.

The appointment of a new president in Afghanistan was crucial, among other things, to arrange a continued foreign troop presence beyond the end of the NATO's combat mandate at the end of the year.

Afghanistan's new President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (2nd L) stands next to Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (L) and his deputies as he takes the oath during his inauguration as president in Kabul September 29, 2014
(Photo: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)

What will determine the success of the Afghan unity government?

Ghani's priorities

Afghanistan's new president Ghani is a technocrat who enjoys huge support in the country's Pashtun-dominated areas. He lost the first round of the presidential vote to Abdullah, who also failed to win an outright majority. The 65-year-old emerged as the winner of the second round after a months-long deadlock over vote counting.

In the 2009 elections, Ghani secured only three percent of the total votes. But this time around, his alliances with tribal and religious leaders proved vital to attract a large number of voters.

Experts say that Ghani's main strength is his vast experience in handling economic affairs. The Afghan president worked as a World Bank economist for many years, and has been involved in international research projects on failed states.

In a DW interview, the 65-year-old said he was determined to make the Afghan economy sustainable. "Afghanistan has the capacity to become an industrialized country because of its mining and agriculture sectors. We can also create jobs for educated men and women by investing in information technology. The transport sector is also vital for our economy. Afghanistan's geographical location gives it the opportunity to become one of the biggest transit routes in the region. It can connect Southern, Eastern and Central Asia to the Middle East," he told DW.

Ghani is also in favor of resuming peace talks with the Taliban insurgent: "We believe in an unfailing peace, therefore, we need to curb terrorism. The Taliban have to make it clear whether they want to lay down weapons or not. We believe that we have to make concessions at all levels if we want to achieve lasting peace," said the new president.

Ghani has made it clear that he will sign the pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. The agreement, he says, is in Afghanistan's benefit.

A neutral president?

According to Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, "Ghani is not as polarizing as Abdullah."

"While Abdullah is a politician associated with the Northern Alliance, Ghani is essentially a long-time bureaucrat and economist," Kugelman told DW.

Ghani's neutrality can prove to be his asset. At the same time, it can also work against him as many Afghans resent the fact that Ghani was far away from his homeland working in Washington during Afghanistan's most difficult years.

The new president's alliance with the former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum also disillusioned his supporters.

Another chance

For Abdullah, the presidential elections were like a déjà-vu. He ran a similar campaign in 2009 against Karzai. At that time, however, he did not participate in the run-off as a protest against the alleged vote rigging.

Workers of Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) recount ballot in Kabul, Afghanistan, 25 August 2014
(Photo: EPA/HEDAYATULLAH AMID +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

The announcement comes after the weeks-long vote auditing process

Abdullah was in the opposition for many years and is a prominent former member of the Northern Alliance which fought alongside the US in 2001 to oust the then Taliban-led regime from power. Abdullah's close relationship with the Northern Alliance's late leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, helped him establish a broad support base in the country's northern areas.

"In a country where many people are fed up with the Taliban's violence, Abdullah's Northern Alliance association is very attractive," said Kugelman, adding that this would make the 53-year-old politician more hesitant to pursue peace talks with the insurgents.

But in a DW interview during the election campaign, Abdullah said he was open for talks, however, he was "not prepared to compromise to please a small number of militants."

His reluctance to engage in talks with the Taliban might create problems for the new government. "I believe Ghani and Abdullah would be able work together - and even complement one another. Both are highly qualified and capable individuals who, while they have their differences, I believe want the best for Afghanistan," Andrew Wilder, Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, told DW.

"The main problem is not the two of them, but some of the powerbrokers in their camps who still have considerable influence and will constrain the ability of the president and the CEO to act independently," Wilder added.