Afghanistan Has Two Presidents

As if the country needed more turmoil.

The New York Times headline says it all: “Ghani Takes the Oath of Afghan President. His Rival Does, Too.

Just a few minutes and a thin wall apart, both President Ashraf Ghani and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, took the oath of office as the president of Afghanistan on Monday, plunging the fragile country into a new crisis during sensitive peace talks.

As both men were delivering their speeches broadcast on split-screens across the country, a barrage of rockets landed in the capital near the site of the ceremonies. Sirens blared in the diplomatic area near the presidential palace.

Mr. Ghani’s inauguration was briefly interrupted, with some in the audience running for cover. But the president refused to leave the stage and urged calm.

“I am not wearing an armored vest,” Mr. Ghani said, opening his jacket. “We have seen big attacks. A couple explosions shouldn’t scare us.”

The capital city had remained under lockdown for much of Monday, as marathon efforts led by U.S. diplomats to prevent a split government following a monthslong election dispute failed. President Ghani, who was declared the winner of a bitterly disputed vote, had announced that he was going ahead with his inauguration. Mr. Abdullah, who accuses Mr. Ghani of winning unfairly through fraud, had said that he would hold a simultaneous swearing-in next door.

Mr. Abdullah has been the chief executive of the coalition government brokered by the United States when a previous election in 2014 ended in another messy stalemate. This is the third presidential election, out of the country’s total of four since the U.S. invasion in 2001, that has been bitterly disputed and has required American mediation to find a way out.

All of this played out in the middle of a U.S.-negotiated peace plan with the Taliban, which calls for a full U.S. military withdrawal over the next 14 months as well as the start of direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgency.

BBC (“Afghanistan: Rival ‘presidents’ hold two inaugurations“):

Two Afghan politicians – who both claim they won the presidential election – have declared themselves president at rival inauguration ceremonies.

The electoral commission says incumbent Ashraf Ghani narrowly won September’s vote, but Abdullah Abdullah alleges the result is fraudulent.

Experts warned the current political rivalry would “gravely affect the government’s position in the upcoming intra-Afghan talks”, which are due to begin on Tuesday.

“Unity is the only way [forward] if they want to win on the negotiating table,” political analyst Atta Noori told AFP news agency.

Explosions were heard during the ceremonies, but there have been no reported injuries.

Mr Ghani, who has been president since 2014, held his inauguration ceremony at the Presidential Palace in the capital Kabul.

The US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, charge d’affaires of the US embassy to Afghanistan Ross Wilson, Nato commander Gen Scott Miller and ambassadors of European Union, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Germany and Norway were all in attendance.

Mr Abdullah held his ceremony a short distance away at Sapedar Palace, which he used as his office during his tenure as Afghanistan’s chief executive in the last government. The ceremony went ahead despite his team earlier saying they would be prepared to cancel it, following the intervention of Mr Khalilzad.

Mr Khalilzad is trying to work out a power-sharing arrangement between the two camps, with people on the ground clear-eyed about what two rival administrations would mean for Afghanistan.

“It’s impossible to have two presidents in one country,” one Afghan man told AFP. “Instead of [both] holding oath-taking ceremonies they should talk to each other to find a solution.”

There’s an old saying in football that, if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. That’s certainly true of presidents.

I haven’t the slightest idea whether Ghani or Abdullah received the most votes in the election. The system is corrupt but exactly how corrupt is unclear.

The irony, of course, is that, even if the election outcome weren’t contested, the Afghan presidency is a legal fiction. None of the men who have held the office since the US invasion ousted the Taliban government have actually governed the country. The position is, for all intents and purposes, Mayor of Kabul.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Trump still won’t release the details of our withdrawal agreement. I was hoping we’d avoid ‘copters on the embassy roof. Not so sure we will, now. Clearly the Taliban has won, clearly our guys have lost and are presumably busy filling their Swiss bank accounts with US aid money.

    Fortunately Trump is busy creating multiple other crises so no one has the bandwidth to point out that his ‘deal’ seems no more complex than, ‘cut and run.’

    I feel bad for our soldiers. The comforting fiction that they are fighting and dying for freedom is thin as single ply toilet paper. They’re fighting and dying for nothing. Again.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yea, this didn’t even make the front page of the WaPo website as of posting.

  3. Gustopher says:

    We get a reality tv presidency, and the Afghans go with a sitcom.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    It’s OK if it ends in farce. As long as it ends

  5. Lounsbury says:

    I suppose the only thing to rescue out of the billions poured into the Afghan scrublands is a rump protectorate in the Central Asian borderlands, essentially the old Northern Alliance.

  6. senyordave says:

    Sight unseen, I’ll take either of them over our president. Hell, I’ll take either of their drivers over our president. I’ll even throw in Eric, Don Jr., and Javanka.