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In Northern Afghanistan, the province of Balkh is often cited as an example of what's going right in the country. Business is booming. Farmers have stopped growing opium poppies and there is no sign of the Taliban. But the province also highlights what could go wrong as the U.S. plans to place more money and power in the hands of local governors.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this story about the war lord nicknamed the teacher, who is running things in Balkh.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Dozens of tribal elders, businessmen and officials pack the spacious governor's office here in Balkh. The governor, with thinning black hair and gray-flecked stubble, beckons them to approach one by one. He extends a hand, which many visitors kiss.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Governor Atta Mohammad Noor listens to their requests while signing stacks of documents. A lawyer tells the governor he's prepared to take on the property case of a woman the governor knows.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Help her out and don't charge her too much, Atta warns the lawyer, and dismisses him with a wave. The lawyer, nor anyone else, dares challenge the Ostad, as Governor Atta is widely known. He acquired the nickname that means teacher from the days when he was a mujahedeen commander fighting the Russians.

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 his title on his business card, is firmly in charge here. No meaningful business in the province is transacted without his approval. Major real estate in the provincial capital of Mazar-e-Sharif is in the hands of companies Atta owns or controls. He's a key player in the transport industry in Afghanistan's north, where a crucial new NATO supply line is located.

Nader Nadery is with the country's Independent Human Rights Commission based in Kabul. He 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.

Mr. NADER NADERY (Independent Human Rights Commission, Kabul): While he's changed to some extent, but he still remained 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.

NELSON: Nadery 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.

Mr. NADERY: People do not see it as a good sign to go directly and empower those figures.

NELSON: Atta's power was on display last summer when he openly supported incumbent Hamid Karzai's main rival in the presidential elections here. Billboards featuring the two are still visible around Mazar city. Atta says he has no regret over that alliance.

Governor ATTA MOHAMMAD NOOR (Balkh Province, Afghanistan): (Through translator) 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.

Professor NASIM BAHMAN (Maulana University, Mazar; TV Journalist): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: 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 or not Karzai will fire Atta for that betrayal remains to be seen. He appoints the country's 34 governors, but many here believe Karzai is too weak to remove Atta. That includes Atta, who dismisses any concern he might be forced to step aside.

Gov. NOOR: (Through translator) 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.

NELSON: There's little doubt Atta enjoys a lot of popular support.

(Soundbite of city)

NELSON: Like many here, 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. MOHAMMAD ASEF: Yeah, Mr. Atta is good man. This is good working. A lot of people are like it. People are happy.

NELSON: Back in Kabul, Atta's opponents argue such loyalty is motivated more by fear than adoration. Like Ramazan Bashardost, an Afghan lawmaker and third-highest vote getter in last year's presidential election.

Mr. RAMAZAN BASHARDOST (Lawmaker): We have a very bad experience since 30 years because we have war since 30 years. So, if there's a lot of political problem, economical problem, corruption, the people said we accept because there is not war every day.

NELSON: He 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.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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