Can This Provincial Warlord Scale in Kabul?
Meet the Facebook-posting, Segway-riding, battle-hardened governor who just might be Afghanistan’s next president.
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — “I wish you hadn’t been reappointed as the governor of Balkh province,” says a young representative from the neighboring Baghlan province of Afghanistan, in a room full of tribal elders, to Atta Mohammad Noor. “I wish you had been appointed as the leader to our province instead so we could be as prosperous as Balkh,” he adds, as heads nod in agreement around the room, almost on cue.
The praise isn’t new for Noor, one of Afghanistan’s longest-lasting kingmakers. Since 2004, he has been governor of Balkh in northern Afghanistan, though “governor” may be too modest a title. Noor’s control over Balkh is so absolute that locals joke a policeman won’t even draw his gun without checking with the governor. In a country continually on the brink, Balkh has been a rare oasis of security and economic stability, a critical nexus for trade with Central Asia and China — and one of the few places in Afghanistan where women can do business safely. The United States and other donor nations have backed Balkh’s success with considerable funding. And it’s nothing new to hear Noor, now in his 50s, pitched by his peers as a future leader of Afghanistan.
What is new, however, is Noor’s open embrace of that talk. For most of the last 12 years, Noor has seemed content with his own fiefdom in the north. Now he admits that he aspires for a larger role in national politics. “I am consulting with my advisors and will likely participate in the 2019 presidential elections, either on the ticket or as one of our candidates,” he told Foreign Policy.
Noor has already started to challenge his closest, and most powerful, backer in Kabul, Abdullah Abdullah, who was appointed chief executive of the National Unity Government in a power-sharing deal with his rival, President Ashraf Ghani, in 2014 after a tumultuous and disputed presidential election. Suddenly, Abdullah’s pictures have disappeared from Balkh’s political billboards, the ubiquitous hoardings that hang on every highway and alleyway across Afghanistan, mapping out the local political alliances. In Balkh, Abdullah’s archrival Ghani has replaced him on billboards all across the center of Mazar-e-Sharif, the regional capital, and even in the offices of Abdullah and Noor’s own Jamiat-e-Islami party, which once viciously criticized Ghani in the 2014 elections.
The northern leader is now aiming for the very top of power in Afghanistan. In a country marked by unceasing war, his military skills and personal heroism are popular selling points. But his move away from Balkh might also leave the north, already susceptible to attacks from a newly emboldened Taliban and a creeping Islamic State-led insurgency, freshly vulnerable. Balkh doesn’t want him to leave — and Kabul may not really want him to arrive.
I met with Noor in one of the many palatial houses he owns in Mazar-e-Sharif — an enormous structure, at the end of an equally enormous garden.
Noor is used to the trappings of wealth, but he can ditch them just as easily. After growing up in one of the richest families in Mazar-e-Sharif, Noor joined the mujahideen, the Afghan fighters against the Soviet invasion, as a teenager, living in the mountains and often sleeping rough. He became a power to reckon with at the age of just 21 when he took charge of a 30,000-strong battalion in northern Afghanistan. Like Noor, the men were mostly Tajik, the biggest ethnic group in the north. Noor’s ascent continued as he became one of the most trusted commanders of Ahmad Shah Massoud. When Massoud and others fled north in 1996, Noor was one of the key players in establishing the new “Northern Alliance,” a united anti-Taliban force.
Despite the show of opulence at his estate, Noor and his staff personally received us at the gate, riding a fleet of Segways. As we sat in one of the richly decorated living rooms, Noor’s advisors brought him the final plans of an offensive operation for approval. “My troops will go into battle tonight, and I will stay up all night to monitor them,” he informed me.
But another battle is occupying Noor: the political struggle with his oldest ally, Abdullah. Noor and Abdullah’s friendship goes back three decades, when they both served under Massoud, the country’s most prominent anti-Soviet, and later anti-Taliban, fighter. Both Abdullah and Noor were touted as Massoud’s possible heirs after he was murdered just before the 9/11 attacks. But their own alliance seemed unbreakable. “We have a long history together, ever since the resistance, and in every phase in our political careers, I have stood by him,” Noor said of Abdullah, a little reluctantly. Noor backed Abdullah’s bid for the presidency in 2009 and declared him the legitimate victor of the 2014 election, refusing to recognize the authority of Ghani. Ghani responded in similar fashion, “sacking” Noor as governor of Balkh — a move everyone ignored — and denigrating him in public.
Today, Noor makes no secret of his displeasure with Abdullah’s governance, publicly criticizing the chief executive. “I feel he [Abdullah] hasn’t been able to deliver the commitments and promises he made to us. We have reached a stalemate politically and must part ways,” he explained.
Over the last two years, Abdullah has lost considerable favor within Jamiat-e-Islami and among other supporters. Noor’s campaign against Abdullah has pushed the chief executive into a corner. “I think he [Abdullah] has been severely damaged by all those in Jamiat criticizing him for ‘not delivering,’ whether they support Atta or not,” Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said.
But Noor isn’t just distancing himself from the chief executive. He has also started trying to cultivate a new ally on the national level — his once-foe, President Ghani. Noor has spent much of the last few months in the national capital of Kabul, mending fences with Ghani. In March, during Nowruz, the Afghan New Year, Ghani returned the favor in a visit to Balkh in which he officially “reappointed” Noor as governor.
However, Noor’s growing affinity for former rival Ghani is seen by political analysts as a tactical move in preparation for the next national elections in 2019. Some say Noor may go so far as to run on Ghani’s ticket as his vice president. Standing alongside Ghani could provide Noor with a wider support base beyond the northern regions, where he is already the undisputed alpha leader. Winning support among the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, would be a prerequisite for running a presidential campaign of his own. Noor says he sees himself as a leader of all Afghans and is confident others will soon share his assessment. “I do not prefer any ethnicity over another,” he said. “But normally the Tajik community is more educated and believes in coexistence, and it’s easier for them to accept such a unity-based approach.”
Noor may have plans to leave Balkh, but that doesn’t mean he will give up his power there. Noor prides himself in being a kingmaker, boasting that part of his deal with the central government will be that he gets to choose the next leader of his home region. He already has a candidate picked out for the throne of Mazar but wouldn’t give a name.
Noor disdains the term “warlord.” “It hurts me,” he told me, sitting in his Victorian-style library. “After having dedicated your life to defending the sovereignty of your country — losing your loved ones in the process — after all those sacrifices, would you call them warlords or champions?” Nevertheless, his power is clearly built on providing security, backed up by the security forces who owe him a virtually feudal alliance. Even the national-level forces stationed in Balkh, like the Afghan National Police, are personally loyal to Noor.
Like a medieval baron, Noor leads his forces on the ground — one of the reasons for their intense attachment to him. Even today, he fights alongside them in battles and offensives against the insurgency. Noor’s team talks proudly of his ability with a range of weapons, including Stinger missiles and sniper rifles. “I will be joining the armed forces tomorrow at the front line in the Alborz Mountains,” he informed me. “Everyone likes a comfortable home and the latest cars. But if you don’t leave them behind and go to the mountains, how can you deliver security?” He also spends an hour or two on Facebook every day, he says, refuting his critics and Islamic militants.
Noor’s commitment to security has come at a cost to his own reputation. An explosive report by Human Rights Watch in 2015 accused Noor of funding and supporting local militias that have tortured, raped, kidnapped, and arbitrarily detained ordinary Afghans. Noor has criticized some militias, but many of them have simultaneously been integrated into the state government through the Afghan Local Police program, which has validated their authority and abuses. Questions have also been raised about the source of Noor’s wealth. “I am good at more than just fighting battles. I’m a very good at business, too,” he glibly assured me, crediting his affluence to “successful family business.”
Yet the adoration of many in Balkh for him is real. “I’ve heard rumors that the governor is considering moving to national politics. If it is true, I won’t be very happy,” said Abdur Rahim, a 40-year-old local resident, who was out for a late-night stroll with his daughters in Mazar-e-Sharif’s public park. That alone would be impossible in any other Afghan city, where security fears and widespread misogyny keep women inside closed walls — especially at night. “We feel safe and free in this city, and that is all because of Ustad Atta. I’m upset that he considering moving to Kabul,” added Rahim’s 16-year-old daughter, Sohaila.
Like many other locals, she calls Noor ustad, or teacher. It’s a name that goes back to the first war, when he would supposedly teach other mujahideen in downtime between battles. Noor’s team repeatedly and proudly speaks of the opportunities open to women in Balkh, which has one of the most educated female populations in the country.
But they are cautious about the prospective move to Kabul. “I don’t have doubts about ustad’s success in Kabul,” said Qudratullah Hormat, a close aide of Noor. “But I am concerned about his conditions to the government being fulfilled. I’ve advised him to first ensure his demands are met before offering his resignation. You never know what game the other side is playing.”
Hormat’s concerns aren’t unfounded. Longtime observers of Afghan politics have speculated that while Noor may be looking for a new ally in Ghani, it is likely that the president could be dangling a deal just to split the Jamiat-e-Islami party and weaken his rival, Abdullah. And Noor’s confidence that his power will transfer from his region to the national government could also be deeply mistaken. Kabul has a more vigilant civil society than Balkh, with an active and critical press; is more closely watched by international forces; and brings all of Afghan’s messy local politics together into one tangled center.
Still, the governor isn’t deterred by the challenges.
Comparing politics to combat, he acknowledges there are obvious obstacles. “It is always wise to select the more difficult path,” he says, quoting a Persian proverb. “If it wasn’t for the stones and rocks, the sound of the river wouldn’t be as sweet.”
Photo credit: Ivan Flores