Afghanistan to inaugurate new president as conflict rages on

Afghanistan to inaugurate new president as conflict rages on
Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai shake hands after signing a power-sharing agreement at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on September 21, 2014. Afghanistan's two rival presidential candidates signed a power-sharing deal on September 21, ending a prolonged stand-off over disputed election results at a pivotal moment in the war-weary nation's history.

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan will host a grand presidential inauguration on Monday, with former US-based academic Ashraf Ghani taking power as NATO troops end their 13-year war without defeating the fierce Taliban insurgency.

Ghani takes over from outgoing President Hamid Karzai after a three-month standoff over disputed election results that fuelled the insurgency and worsened Afghanistan's dire economic outlook.

The ceremony will be the country's first democratic transfer of power - a benchmark seen by international donors as a key legacy of the costly military and civilian intervention since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Both Ghani and his poll rival Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter, claimed to have won the fraud-tainted June 14 election, tipping Afghanistan into a crisis that threatened to trigger nationwide unrest.

But, under heavy pressure from the US and UN, the two candidates agreed to form a national unity government, and Ghani was declared president after an audit of all nearly eight million ballot papers.

Abdullah will also be inaugurated on Monday as chief executive, a new role similar to a prime minister, in a government structure far different to Karzai's all-powerful presidency.

Karzai has had a rocky relationship with the US-led NATO military coalition and other international backers who pumped billions of dollars into the war-wrecked country, but he struck a conciliatory tone in his final days in office.

"I can say with confidence that Afghanistan will soon witness peace and stability, and the new president and his government will have your support," he told ambassadors at a farewell meeting on Saturday.

"Now we see children going to school, roads reconstructed, progress in the health sector and the Afghan flag proudly waving around the world - these are all because of international support and assistance." Under the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime, girls were banned from education and women were not allowed outside unless wearing a burqa and accompanied by a man.

Television and music were also outlawed, and men were beaten for not growing a beard.

NATO troops exit

Both Ghani and Abdullah are moderate, pro-Western leaders who have vowed to push ahead with the patchy social and infrastructure progress since 2001, but the country still faces a major threat from Taliban militants.

Afghan soldiers and police have struggled to hold back recent insurgent offensives, with violence worsening in many provinces.

NATO operations have scaled back rapidly and its combat mission will finish at the end of this year.

Only 33 NATO bases are still active, down from a peak of 800 - leaving local security forces to thwart the Taliban with less and less assistance.

Monday's inauguration will open the way for the new government to sign an agreement allowing 12,500 US-led troops to remain into 2015 on a mission to support and train the police and army.

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