Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Afghanistan's northern Balkh province, meets with businessmen, tribal elders and other officials in Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital. No business in Balkh is conducted without the popular former warlord's approval.
Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Afghanistan's northern Balkh province, meets with businessmen, tribal elders and other officials in Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital. No business in Balkh is conducted without the popular former warlord's approval. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
In Afghanistan, the northern province of Balkh is often cited as an example of what's going right in the country. Business there is booming. Farmers in the province don't grow opium poppies anymore, nor is there any sign of the Taliban.
Yet the province also highlights what could go wrong if the West moves too quickly to improve its outreach to Afghans by placing power and money in the hands of local governments. In Balkh, the government is under the control of a former warlord nicknamed "The Teacher."
On a recent day, dozens of tribal elders, businessmen and officials pack the spacious governor's office in Balkh. Gov. Atta Mohammad Noor, with thinning black hair and gray-flecked stubble, beckons them to approach, one by one. He extends a hand, which many visitors kiss.
Atta listens to their requests while signing stacks of documents. A lawyer tells the governor he is prepared to take on the property case of a woman the governor knows.
Help her out and don't charge her too much, Atta warns the lawyer, and then dismisses him with a wave.
Neither the lawyer, nor anyone else, dares challenge "Ostad" — "The Teacher" — as Atta is widely known. He acquired the nickname from his days as a mujahedeen commander fighting the Russians.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Atta, shown in his office, says he, not Kabul, will decide whether he remains governor of his province of Balkh in northern Afghanistan.
Atta, shown in his office, says he, not Kabul, will decide whether he remains governor of his province of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
He no longer looks like a warlord, having exchanged his Afghan tunics for expensive designer suits and ties. But there is no doubt this man, who uses "full-rank general" as the title on his business card, is firmly in charge.
'Head Of A Fiefdom'
No meaningful business in the province is transacted without his approval. Major real estate in the provincial capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, is in the hands of companies Atta owns or controls. He is a key player in the transport industry in Afghanistan's north, where a crucial new NATO supply line is located.
Nader Nadery, with the country's Independent Human Rights Commission, based in Kabul, says the West has helped strengthen Atta by providing him millions of dollars for projects and sending ambassadors and other high-ranking officials to meet with him.
"While he's changed to some extent ... he still remains a head of a fiefdom, a powerful figure in terms of this ability to arm thousands of people as he claims, and also challenging the government," Nadery says.
He says the Western rush to bypass the central government and increase the authority of provincial officials without first establishing a system of accountability could lead to more corruption and strife.
"People do not see it as a good sign to go directly and empower those figures," Nadery says.
Allied Against Karzai
Atta's power was on display last summer when he openly supported incumbent Hamid Karzai's main rival in the Afghan presidential elections. Billboards featuring the two are still visible around Mazar city.
Atta says he has no regret over that alliance.
"I am not against Karzai personally. But we were unhappy with the situation and had views on the changes to policies and actions which are needed in Afghanistan," he says.
Nasim Bahman, a TV journalist and university professor in Balkh province, says Atta backed presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah because the governor was seeking more concessions from the central government.
Whether Karzai will fire Atta for that betrayal remains to be seen. The president appoints the country's 34 governors, but many believe Karzai is too weak to remove Atta.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
Billboards of Atta and former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah are still on display in Mazar-e-Sharif, a tangible snub to the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Billboards of Atta and former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah are still on display in Mazar-e-Sharif, a tangible snub to the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
That includes Atta, who dismisses any concern he might be forced to step aside.
"As I've said, lots of offers have been made for me to stay, and I will decide whether to stay or not based on what the people say," he says.
Concern About Checks And Balances
There's little doubt Atta enjoys great popular support.
Like many in Balkh, Mohammad Asef, a carpet vendor in Mazar, says that people would rebel against any effort to replace the governor. He says Atta has brought peace and stability to the province, where there are few police checkpoints and people feel safe walking around at night.
"Mr. Atta is a good man. This is good working; a lot of people like it. People are happy," he says.
In Kabul, Atta's opponents, such as Afghan lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost, argue such loyalty is motivated more by fear than adoration. Bashardost was the third-highest vote getter in last year's presidential election.
"We have a very bad experience [for] 30 years because we had war [for] 30 years. So if there's a lot of political problems, economic problems, corruption, people say we accept because there is not war every day," he says.
Bashardost and others say they worry there will be many more Attas if the West continues pushing for local governance without first establishing checks and balances.