ISLAMABAD - The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan urged Afghan leaders Thursday not to allow political differences to undermine recent security gains in the war-torn country.
U.S. General John Nicholson made the remarks as President Ashraf Ghani and his governing partner, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, are locked in a political confrontation, raising questions about the survival of their so-called national unity government.
"RS (Resolute Support) respects the Afghan political process, but has no involvement with it. Our only message to all involved is please don't let the political process undermine the security gains and progress within the security institutions that have been made over the last six-nine months," said General Nicholson in written comments that NATO's Resolute Support mission sent to VOA from Kabul.
Simmering tensions between Ghani and Abdullah were publicly exposed for the first time last week when the chief executive criticized the president and accused him of not honoring provisions of the political agreement they signed in September 2014, that paved the way for installing the unity government.
President Ghani called the remarks counterproductive and “not in line with the spirit and principles that shape the foundation of governance.”
Abdullah responded by demanding “total implementation of the agreement on unity government; we don't want anything more or less than that because implementation of the agreement would lead to the survival and stability of the country,” he said.
The two Afghan leaders met for the first time on Wednesday since the political turmoil erupted and are scheduled to hold more talks in coming days to resolve their differences.
The Obama administration has reiterated its support for the Afghan unity government, encouraging both Ghani and Abdullah to work together for a prosperous and stable Afghanistan.
“I think our assessment is …that they’ve got significant challenges facing them, but we stand by and ready to support them as they work through these challenges," Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.
"We want to see them implement what is an ambitious reform agenda …and we believe that they understand the importance of them working together rather than separately," he noted.
The political dispute has gripped the Afghan government at a time when Taliban fighters have intensified attacks in 15 of the country's 34 provinces. They have also made significant advances in recent weeks in southern Helmand and two northern provinces, Baghlan and Kunduz.
Addressing a gathering at the presidential palace in connection with Afghan independence day on Thursday, Ghani praised national security forces for bringing security to the country.
"On this historic day, I call on all Afghans to work for peace, prosperity and stability. And I urge Afghan people to stand with their security forces as our security forces have already proven that they can defeat the enemy.”
Abdullah was not present at the ceremony and Ghani did not make any reference to the tensions between the two.
Ghani and Abdullah were rivals in the 2014 presidential election and both claimed to be winners after polls that many observers declared were marred by fraud and irregularities. The deadlock ended when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened and brokered a political deal between the two.
Under the agreement, Ghani was installed as the president and the post of chief executive was created for Abdullah to equally share power in their national unity government. It was also agreed that electoral reforms will be introduced to prevent a repeat of the controversy-marred presidential polls and a constitutional jirga or grand assembly would be held within two years to give legal cover to Abdullah’s office, a deadline due to expire next month.
It has not, however, been possible to convene the jirga meeting because a delay in electoral reforms has prevented authorities from holding parliamentary as well as regional elections that together form the assembly. Abdullah's camp insists the delay in electoral and other reforms is deliberate, assertions Ghani aides reject.
The Taliban have recently made significant advances in southern Helmand province and northern provinces, including Baghlan and Kunduz. The insurgent group lately has also taken steps to reduce internal divisions, raising fears of a more resilient and unified opposition that may face Afghan security forces in coming months, although they have held certain key areas only with the help of U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks.