U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Washington is for a "unified and sovereign Afghanistan" and opposes "any action to establish a parallel government," hours after the country's president and his main election rival held dual and competing inauguration ceremonies.
"We strongly oppose any action to establish a parallel government and any use of force to resolve political differences," Pompeo said in a statement on March 9.
He also condemned a terror attack in Kabul the same day for which the Islamic State militant group took responsibility. Four rockets landed close to the presidential palace when President Ashraf Ghani was being sworn in for his second term in office, the Khaama Press news agency reported.
In a separate move, Washington has called for a March 10 vote at the UN Security Council to endorse its accord with the Taliban that is meant to pave the way for peace to be achieved in the nearly two-decade war, AFP quoted diplomats as saying.
The peace deal was sealed on February 29 and a U.S. official told AP on March 9 that hundreds of U.S. soldiers were now heading out of Afghanistan.
With the peace deal, the official said the departing U.S. soldiers will not be replaced.
That means the United States is now effectively moving ahead with an initial reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 soldiers.
The long-term plan is for the United States to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan within 14 months if security conditions are met.
Meanwhile, Ghani's main political rival, former Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, held his own inauguration ceremony on March 9 -- insisting that he won the country's September 2019 presidential election.
Hundreds of guests attended the inauguration ceremonies of both teams at palaces located next to each other in central Kabul, after last-ditch efforts to mediate an end to the standoff between Ghani and Abdullah failed to resolve the crisis.
U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. General Scott Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, attended Ghani's inauguration as the sound of rocket fire echoed in the background.
"We have seen bigger attacks. Don't be afraid of just two blasts," Ghani said, as he raised his hands to calm the crowd around him, which included many foreign dignitaries.
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group later claimed responsibility for the rocket attack that targeted the inauguration. There were no reports of any injuries.
"Caliphate soldiers targeted the inauguration of the tyrant Ashraf Ghani," by firing 10 rockets near the presidential palace in Kabul, IS said in a statement released on social media.
Hours before the parallel ceremonies, Abdullah wrote on Twitter that "no one should have underestimated our commitment to genuine democracy."
"Invalidation of all fraudulent votes is the way out," Abdullah said.
The dispute stems from the official results of the bitterly contested September 28 presidential election.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared on February 19 that Ghani had won reelection with just over 50 percent of the vote.
According to the official vote count, Abdullah finished in second place with about 39 percent of the first-round vote.
But Abdullah rejects the official results, saying the election was marred by widespread fraud. He has declared himself the winner and vowed to form his own government.
The standoff has triggered a political crisis that has threatened to spill over into violence and derail a historic peace deal between the United States and the Taliban.
The dispute over the presidency also has left Kabul's allies and ordinary Afghans deeply worried about the future of the country as it tries to strike a peace deal with Taliban militants. Washington previously asked both sides to delay the ceremonies.
Political analyst Atta Noori told AFP that the dispute would "gravely affect the government's position in the upcoming intra-Afghan talks."
"Unity is the only way [forward] if they want to win on the negotiating table," Noori said.
The Taliban, meanwhile, says talks with Afghanistan’s government scheduled to start on March 10 are unlikely to take place on time because of the two rivals' plans to conduct the parallel ceremonies.
Abdullah was named chief executive officer in 2014 under a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement that created a fragile national-unity government to resolve a political crisis over Abdullah's allegations of widespread fraud in the 2014 presidential election.
Under that deal, Ghani became president in the national-unity government while the new office of chief executive officer was created for Abdullah.