KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Ashraf Ghani won a second term as president of Afghanistan, the country's independent election commission announced Tuesday, but his closest opponent refused to recognize the results, declaring himself winner and potentially endangering peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The Taliban also rejected Ghani's win, further putting into question a U.S. peace plan that calls for a reduction in violence followed by a more permanent agreement expected to be signed Feb. 29, between Washington and the Taliban. That agreement would pave the way for U.S. troops to return home, ending America's longest war, and trigger negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict.
The bickering in Kabul and Ghani's surprise suggestion that the Taliban participate in elections would seem to throw a wrench into peace plans announced last weekend at the Munich Security Summit.
Theelection commission said Ghani garnered 923,592 votes, or 50.64%, in the troubled election that took place last Sept. 28. The country's chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah received 720,841 votes, or 39.52%.
Ghani and Abdullah head a fragile national unity government that was put together under U.S. pressure after both leaders claimed victory in Afghanistan’s 2014 elections.
Following the announcement of the results, Ghani appeared among supporters in Kabul, where he emphasized the importance of peace talks with the Taliban, saying his winning team will bring peace to the country.
“Its time to make Afghanistan united," he said, urging the insurgent group to participate in the democratic process without referencing the peace agreement he supported in Munich.
Ghani pointed to candidate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who received 3.5% of the vote as an example of a former militant to has embraced democracy. Hekmatyar was a U.S.-declared terrorist until he signed a peace agreement with Ghani in late 2016.
“I congratulate him and he did a good job. We ask the Taliban as well to come and participate in elections,” Ghani said.
Abdullah, in comments to supporters broadcast by media outlets, said he considered the election results ïllegal."
“We are going to establish an inclusive government," he said.
Election results were repeatedly delayed amid accusations ofmisconduct, fraud and technical problems with counting ballots. The final vote tally was originally to be announced Nov. 7.
Hawa Alam Nuristani, head of the national election commission, said previously that 1.8 million Afghan citizens voted in the election out of some 9.6 million eligible voters.
On election day, many Afghans found incomplete voters’ lists, unworkable biometric identification systems aimed at curbing fraud, and in some cases hostile election workers.
In Kabul, it was rare to see a crowded polling center. Afghans who had patiently lined up before voting centers were opened, in some locations found that election officials had yet to arrive by opening time.
The election commission tried to launch a ballot recount in November but Abdullah halted the attempt, saying he wouldn’t let his observers participate. Thousands of his supporters rallied against what they said were fake ballots and the controversial recount had seemed set to favor Ghani.
In December, however, Abdullah agreed to allow a ballot recount in provinces where his supporters had stopped the process.
The government’s push to hold the vote in itself had been controversial. In an interview with The Associated Press before the election, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai warned the election could be destabilizing for the country at a time of deep political uncertainty.
Tuesday's election results came days after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a truce agreement between the United States and the Taliban that could lead to the withdrawal of American troops from the country.
The Taliban in a statement called the election a “fraud" and has maintained that the Afghan government is a “puppet” of the United States.
“After the end of the invasion the Muslim people of Afghanistan will decide about their internal issues and will adopt their political faith," the statement said.
Ghani first ran for president in 2009, capturing barely a quarter of the votes. He ran again in 2014 in what was considered a deeply flawed and corrupt exercise.
Ghani, from central Logar province, was born May 19, 1949. He holds a doctorate in Anthropology from Columbia University and first went to the U.S. as a high school exchange student.
Except for a brief teaching stint at Kabul University in the early 1970s, Ghani lived in the United States, where he was an academic until joining the World Bank as a senior adviser in 1991.
Ghani returned to Afghanistan after 24 years when the Taliban were ousted by the U.S.-led coalition. He was head of Kabul University until he joined President Hamid Karzai’s government as finance minister. In 2010 he led the lengthy process to transfer security of the country from U.S.-led coalition forces to the Afghanistan National Security Forces, which took effect in 2014.