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Afghan Governor's Dismissal Highlights Rift In Party, Risks To Unity Government

FILE: Former militia commander Atta Mohammad Noor had been governor of Balkh Province since 2004.
FILE: Former militia commander Atta Mohammad Noor had been governor of Balkh Province since 2004.

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Jawid, an ethnic Tajik shopkeeper in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, has been building up his small business during the past decade within a pocket of relative stability.

Now, with President Ashraf Ghani's removal of the governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, Jawid says he fears the kind of lawlessness and conflict that has hindered reconstruction in many other parts of Afghanistan.

"The security situation in Mazar-e Sharif has been good and we are happy about it," Jawid told RFE/RL. "We do not want Atta Mohammad to be replaced."

Despite his reputation as a strongman who refuses to tolerate opposition and a history of alleged human rights abuses, Noor has been credited and praised by Western officials for bringing criminal groups and rival militia factions under control since he was appointed as Balkh's governor in 2004 by then-President Hamid Karzai.

The relative stability of Balkh Province means that cities like Mazar e-Sharif are thriving economically compared to the rest of the country. (file photo)
The relative stability of Balkh Province means that cities like Mazar e-Sharif are thriving economically compared to the rest of the country. (file photo)

While Taliban fighters and other Islamic militants have destabilized much of Afghanistan, relative security in Balkh allowed reconstruction programs to move forward and additional international aid to be disbursed in the province.

Major infrastructure development in the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, brought an economic boom that often benefited Noor's political patrons.

That allowed Noor, a former anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia commander from the largely ethnic-Tajik Jamiat-e Islami party, to become the main source of political power in Balkh Province.

Over time, Noor expanded his political base into other parts of northern Afghanistan.

Pre-Election Positioning?

Thomas Ruttig, a co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, is convinced that Noor has aspirations to run for the Afghan presidency in an election scheduled for 2019.

That appears to have prompted an internal power struggle with other Jamiat-e Islami leaders who have presidential aspirations and currently hold positions in Afghanistan's National Unity Government, including Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Thus, Ruttig says, Noor's removal from the Balkh governor's post represents "positioning before the presidential elections" and positioning within Jamiat-e Islami.

Afghanistan analyst Thomas Ruttig
Afghanistan analyst Thomas Ruttig

"It is very clear that Atta Mohammad became one of the alternative power centers in Afghanistan using a regional base, which makes the Afghan state unstable," Ruttig said. "From the point of view of the president, Ghani has done something trying to stabilize" the country.

Ruttig said Noor has "come out as the most powerful" of the party's leaders "because he controls the most territory of all the Jamiat-e Islami leaders in the north and the northeast."

"He has consolidated himself there also, of course, by profiting from economic development," Ruttig said.

Immediately after the fall of the Taliban regime after the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, Noor was not such a big player in Jamiat-e Islami, Ruttig said.

"At least five other people were considered first for powerful positions in Afghanistan's [post-Taliban] central government," he said.

Those include former Jamiat-e Islami militia commanders or their close associates, such as former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who died in 2014; former Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan; former Vice President Yunus Qanuni; former Vice President Ahmad Zia Masud, the brother of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Masud; Rabbani, the son of the late Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani; and Abdullah.

"Atta Mohammad is actually a later generation of those bigger commanders," Ruttig said. "His rise was after 2001 while the others were already" in strong positions within Jamiat-e Islami when the Tailban regime collapsed in late 2001.

Resisting The Lure Of Kabul

Ruttig said Noor also learned from watching other powerful regional leaders removed from power or "tempted to go to Kabul" to take posts in the central government.

"He resisted this and that's why he also has tried not to be removed from his base in Mazar-e Sharif because he knows that will erode his grip on that area, very clearly," Ruttig said.

Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, had vowed to replace all of Afghanistan's provincial governors and tried to sack Noor in the past -- notably, after Noor went to Turkey in mid-2017 and announced the formation of an opposition alliance in Turkey with the exiled Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq, a leading figure in the mainly Shi'ite Hazara community.

With Noor's removal, Ghani has now replaced all of Afghanistan's provincial governors.

But Noor can still challenge the decision in court or mobilize his supporters to carry out protests against his removal from office.

"My dismissal has no legal or legitimate basis," Noor said on Afghan national television after Ghani's decision was announced on December 18. "For now, we are only resorting to civil action, but if this atrocity continues, there are many other options."

A map made for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan showing Balkh Province marked in orange.
A map made for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan showing Balkh Province marked in orange.

Noor's Jamiat-e Islami party in a statement on social media strongly condemned what it called a "one-sided decision," saying it was "hasty, irresponsible, against the security...and in contradiction of the principles of the National Unity Government."

One Jamiat spokesman said it is possible party members will withdraw from their posts in the unity government, potentially destabilizing the administration.

But Ruttig said he doesn't expect Rabbani or Abdullah to resign from their posts in protest because those positions in government put them in a better position if they choose to become candidates in the next presidential election.

Kabul-based political analyst Nasir Shafiq told RFE/RL that Noor's dismissal will create security problems in northern Afghanistan, where Islamic State (IS) militants have emerged in the neighboring province of Jawzjan.

"If we lose a part of the government such as Jamiat-e Islami of Afghanistan, whose chief executive is Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, we will lose a very important element that the government has against the armed oppositions," Shafiq said. "This will result in a lack of confidence and disbelief on the part of people toward the government."

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mujib Rahman Habibzai in Mazar-e Sharif