Afghanistan has descended into a full-blown political crisis after the two main contenders in a bitterly disputed presidential election -- each claiming victory -- were sworn in as president in rival ceremonies.
President Ashraf Ghani, the officially declared winner of the vote, was sworn in for a second term by the country's chief justice in Kabul on March 9. Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive officer after a power-sharing deal settled another election dispute five years ago, took an oath administered by a senior cleric in his own inauguration ceremony nearby at the same time.
The unprecedented move has plunged the country into further uncertainty, with experts warning that the dispute could descend into violence and derail a historic deal to end fighting between the United States and fundamentalist Taliban militants.
As part of that agreement, direct peace talks between the Western-backed Kabul government and the Taliban were scheduled to begin on March 10. But the political crisis in Kabul has thrown those plans into disarray.
"The country has entered uncharted waters, and any move could potentially further exacerbate the situation," said Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul.
The dispute stems from the results of a September 28 election that was marred by allegations of vote-rigging, technical problems, and militant attacks.
Election authorities on February 19 declared Ghani the winner with some 51 percent of the vote -- narrowly giving him an outright win over Abdullah, who was named runner-up with around 40 percent. But Abdullah slammed the result as a "coup" and vowed to form a parallel government.
"The two leaders seem to be responding to their supporters' emotions by sticking to their positions, but it is bringing about tremendous uncertainty," Adili said. "There seems to be a treacherous combination of malfunction of institutions and processes, brinkmanship, and emotionalism on the part of the leaders and their supporters at a very critical juncture."
U.S. officials have attempted to mediate a resolution to the election standoff. Under U.S. pressure, Ghani and Abdullah agreed to postpone their swearing-in ceremonies for two weeks until March 9.
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad held marathon talks with both men until the early hours of March 9, but appears to have failed.
In 2014, a bitter, fraud-marred presidential election pushed Afghanistan to the brink of civil war before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal between Ghani and Abdullah, the two leading candidates. The agreement created the new position of chief executive officer, given to Abdullah to ease his opposition to the election results.
"Today's events in Kabul seem to have unfolded in precisely the way that the U.S. had hoped could be avoided, as evidenced by Khalilzad's last-minute, late-night diplomacy between Ghani and Abdullah," said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group.
"In spite of Khalilzad's efforts to mediate, the U.S. largely stuck to its word: It had clearly messaged to Kabul that it would not intervene to the same degree that Kerry did after 2014's similarly troubled election."
Without a compromise, it would be difficult to break the current political stalemate, Adili said. He said several compromises had been pushed by Abdullah's team and others who have rejected the election results.
One would be to annul those results declaring Ghani the winner and continue with the current government until intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban produce a political settlement.
Another possibility could be to accommodate those outside the current government within a new power-sharing framework.
Watkins said the worst-case scenario would be "if the crisis, which has remained largely rhetorical and political up to this point, progressed toward civil unrest or open acts of violence."
Complicating Intra-Afghan Talks
The political infighting in Kabul has threatened to unravel the U.S.-Taliban deal signed on February 29 to pave the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in what could be a major step toward ending the nearly 19-year war.
As part of the deal, the Taliban is obliged to launch direct negotiations with the Kabul government and other Afghans about a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing agreement.
But there are fears that the feud in Kabul could further complicate the naming of a delegation to negotiate with the militant group, a process already mired in delays and disputes.
Watkins said the political drama illustrated how challenging it might prove to bring Afghan political figures and stakeholders together to sit across the table from the Taliban.
"The peace process's next steps may well demand the sort of compromises that Afghanistan's political elite have not been able to reach -- today, or very often in the past five years," he said.