One of Afghanistan’s most powerful regional leaders is now aiming to assume political center stage by negotiating a power-sharing deal with the president.
From his base as acting governor of northern Balkh Province for more than a decade, Atta Mohammad Noor’s possible deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani could change Afghanistan’s political landscape ahead of the presidential election in 2019.
Noor’s talks Ghani, which have been going on for several weeks, would undermine the standing of Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
A former rival to Ghani, Abdullah joined him in an often tenuous power-sharing deal following controversial presidential polls in 2014. Noor, a former key backer of Abdullah, is now pushing to replace him as the representative of the Jamiat-e Islami party in Afghanistan’s national unity government.
The move, however, has created divisions among the predominantly Tajik supporters of Jamiat-e Islami. Many leaders and members of the Islamist party have enjoyed a large share of power within the various administrations following the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001 -- one of their main military rivals.
"I am here to continue my talks with the honorable president and also for the better formation of Jamiat-i Islami [and to] bring some changes in appointing more deputies within the divisions of responsibility of the party,” Noor said of his aims, “as well as bringing some changes to provinces, working to make Jamiat more active and play an organized role."
Under Noor’s stranglehold since 2004, Balkh has seen stability with its capital, Mazar-e Sharif, undergoing a reconstruction and commercial boom. But the astute former anti-Taliban and anti-communist figure has also faced accusations of defying Kabul and using his power to amass a personal fortune.
He now sees a similar role on the national stage and appears ready to hand over his northern support base for Kabul’s power corridors.
"There have been suggestions that I could take a job in Kabul, but I never asked for a job. My talks with the president at the national level and my demands are for bigger party participation within the government; that's the priority for me," he told Reuters.
The move has pitted Noor against Abdullah, many of whose supporters feel betrayed.
Speaking to Radio Free Afghanistan, Daud Asaas, an adviser to Abdullah, alleged that Atta’s negotiations are aimed at preserving his personal gains.
"The talks between Atta Mohammad Noor and the presidential palace are personal,” he said earlier this month. “[The Afghan presidential palace] Arg has pledged them a number of ministries and provincial posts, and I don't think the talks have reached any conclusions yet."
Another Abdullah supporter, Fazel Sancharaki, was more open in pointing out Atta’s motives.
“Atta can talk with the presidential palace about personal matters like his bank accounts, his foreign trips, or the issue of his acting-governorship of [northern] Balkh [Province],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But regarding the provisions of the political [power-sharing] agreement [with Ghani], only Abdullah can speak.”
The internal tensions within Jamiat-e Islami, one of the main factions in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s, are part of a broader realignment in Afghan politics.
Since the end of NATO combat operations in late 2014, the Taliban insurgency has expanded with the insurgents now controlling large swathes of the countryside.
Kabul’s peace deal with the Hizb-i Islami faction led by controversial Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has opened the door to renewed rivalry among factions whose infighting during the 1990s ruined Kabul.
Ghani’s ruling coalition also faces a complicated struggle with First Vice President Rashid Dostum. The ethnic Uzbek former communist general has proved on occasion to be a wild card. Amid allegations of torture and sexual violence against a political opponent, the Afghan attorney general last week ordered the arrest of nine Dostum bodyguards.
-- With reporting by Reuters