KABUL: Afghanistan inaugurated its first new president in a decade on Monday, swearing in technocrat Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government just as the withdrawal of most foreign troops presents a crucial test.

The first democratic handover of power in Afghan history has been far from smooth: the deal for a unity government was cobbled together after months of deadlock over a vote in which both Mr Ghani and opponent Mr Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory.

Illustrating problems facing the new president, a suicide bomber killed seven people at a security checkpoint near Kabul airport just before Mr Ghani was sworn in, a government official said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Later, ending months of uncertainty over the future US role in Afghanistan, the US embassy announced Ghani would on Tuesday sign a security agreement with the United States allowing a small contingent of troops to remain.

In his inaugural speech, Mr Ghani appealed to Taliban and other militants to join peace talks and put an end to more than a decade of violence. Thousands of Afghans are killed each year in the insurgency.

“Security is a main demand of our people, and we are tired of this war,” Mr Ghani said. “I am calling on the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami to prepare for political negotiations.”

Hezb-i-Islami is an Islamist faction loosely allied with the Taliban.

Mr Ghani also vowed to crack down on rampant corruption and called for cooperation within the coalition government.

“A national unity government is not about sharing power, but about working together,” Mr Ghani said in his speech that lasted nearly an hour.

But already there have been signs of tension in the fragile coalition. A dispute over office space and whether Abdullah would speak at the inauguration led to threats his camp would boycott Monday’s ceremony, an Abdullah aide said, adding it was resolved after late-night meetings with the US ambassador.

The inauguration marks the end of an era with the departure of President Hamid Karzai, the only leader Afghans have known since a US-led invasion in 2001 overthrew the Taliban who had given sanctuary to Al Qaeda.

Mr Ghani’s first act after being sworn in was to sign a decree creating the post of chief executive. Abdullah was sworn in to that job moments later, and he made a speech before Mr Ghani, a departure from the original programme.

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2014

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