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Afghan Leader Defends Record, Talks Political Goals

Atta Mohammad Noor
Atta Mohammad Noor

Atta Mohammad Noor has long occupied a prominent place on the Afghan political stage. From his time as a young commander of the anti-Soviet mujahedin guerillas in the 1980s, Noor became an influential leader after a U.S.-led military intervention overthrew the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. He was the longest-serving governor of his native Balkh stronghold until he stepped down in March.

In response to written questions, Noor discusses some of the accusations and controversies surrounding him. He also weighed in on major issues and his future ambitions.

RFE/RL: After several months of defiant statements and refusals, what made you finally step down as governor of Balkh Province and reconcile with President Ashraf Ghani?

Atta Mohammad Noor: In the wake of the massive fraud in the 2014 presidential elections, the national unity government (NUG) was formed to stop the country from descending into chaos. Under the NUG agreement, the two camps agreed to a 50-50 power-sharing formula. Subsequently, Ghani assumed office as the president and Abdullah as the chief executive of the NUG. In the same agreement, it’s also stipulated that all senior political hiring and firing will be done in consultation with our party representatives. However, the presidential palace announced my resignation without having duly consulted with Jamiat-e Islami’s leadership.

I said it time and again in the past three years that it’s time for me to step down and a new governor take over to build on my legacy and provide security, public services, development, and economic opportunities for Balkh residents.

From the very first day when the presidential palace made the announcement, Jamiat-e Islami insisted on a dialogue to resolve the political crisis over Balkh. We in Jamiat-e Islami presented the palace with a 12-point reform agenda as the framework for our negotiations.

After protracted negotiations that took several months, we concluded an agreement in which the presidential palace agreed to all our reform proposals except for two. Ghani acted in good faith and decreed the provisions of the agreement with Jamiat-e Islami. In line with the agreement, I deemed it necessary to step down, and I officially announced that in my speech at the inauguration of the Nowruz festival in Balkh on March 21.

During my tenure, Balkh flourished as a vibrant and economic hub. It has changed into an oasis of prosperity, security, co-existence, development, and culture for the whole country. I have left behind a legacy that will last forever. My main assignment has always been serving my people and my country. I have fought and served this country all my life. I will be playing a political role at the national level, where my past legacy will help me do better.

RFE/RL: You’ve criticized CEO Abdullah Abdullah for being a weak leader and have even called him “a snake in the sleeve.” You were his main backer during the 2014 elections; what were the reasons behind your criticism of him?

Noor: This is the most extensively debated and covered subject by the media since the inauguration of the unity government. I did not only criticize Abdullah but Ghani, too, for letting the people down and their failures to deliver on their promises. I might have occasionally singled out Abdullah because I was of the understanding that he, as someone nominated by our party, should have delivered on his promises. This relates to the suffering and agony of the people. People want action. They are tired of hollow promises. People want change. And that’s why we have been raising our voice to be the voice of the voiceless.

RFE/RL: After 9/11, the northern alliance enjoyed most international backing. Why are they complaining now about being discriminated against and that the rights of their supporters are being denied?

Noor: The term ‘northern alliance’ is a cliché often used to trivialize and play down the national resistance of the people of Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and international terrorism.

Those who were associated with [the anti-Soviet] jihad and national resistance of the people of Afghanistan against terrorism [in the 1990s] have been vilified and discriminated against by power-greedy circles over the past few years. Let me reiterate that Afghanistan could only thrive if politics is inclusive and we have a broad-based government in place.

RFE/RL: What’s your stance on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban insurgents? Would you embrace them?

Noor: I welcome those Taliban who are from Afghanistan and want to embrace our constitutional democracy, sever their ties with terrorists, denounce violence, and are willing to join civilian life. However, the Taliban have not shown any signs that they are in fact ready for peace and reconciliation. Unilateral reconciliation doesn’t really work. We have to use all means, either through diplomacy or pressure, to make the Taliban come to the negotiating table.

RFE/RL: In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch said there was strong evidence that you controlled and funded local militias in Balkh that were implicated in serious abuses. How would you respond?

Noor: I am aware of those baseless allegations, and I have lodged a complaint against them. It is staged propaganda by my political rivals and, unfortunately, Human Rights Watch fell for it. I responded in writing to the HRW report, in which they accused me of serious abuses without providing any credible evidence, and made my stance very clear.

RFE/RL: What does Daesh, or ISIS, want to achieve in Afghanistan, especially in the northern provinces?

Noor: After failing to create a permanent foothold in the Middle East, Daesh now wants to create a vacuum in the north in particular and turn Afghanistan into a battleground. The majority of Daesh are mercenaries and turncoat Taliban. Some of them have only changed flags. But there are real ISIS fighters in the north. The foreign troops in cooperation with their Afghan counterparts have been raiding them through air and land. We need more serious efforts in this regard.

RFE/RL: On the issue of the fight against corruption, are you in agreement that you and other high-ranking government officials have failed to effectively battle corruption throughout the country?

Noor: There were serious efforts to curb corruption under my tenure in Balkh. However, corruption is a national issue and needs a holistic top-down national solution. Given the centralized system of governance with all the decisions made in Kabul, we were grappling with the corruption chunks [small graft] in Balkh, not the heart resting and thriving in Kabul. Despite all this, Balkh has stayed a transparent province by channeling revenues to the central budget.

RFE/RL: Your opponents have accused you of having a hand in the widespread corruption in Balkh Province. How do you react to that?

Noor: These are baseless allegations and a staged smear campaign against me. They cannot provide even a shred of evidence to back up their claims. I have always made it clear that if they have evidence, they must present it. They launch such smear campaigns to undermine my legacy. But they have always failed.

RFE/RL: You have a long history of building and leaving political alliances. For example, you harshly slammed General Abdul Rashid Dostum but recently made an alliance with him. Can the people trust your word and political judgment?

Noor: The times are changing in Afghanistan. We are facing a fierce enemy. We need to pool our political resources to counter the menace of the Taliban and Daesh in Afghanistan. United we stand; divided we fall. It is in the true spirit of ‘unity’ that I along with other political figures took the initiative to build a political alliance. Would a political alliance for the sake of unity be a bad thing? Let the people decide.

RFE/RL: Your opponents consider you a warlord, arguing that Afghanistan would not prosper under the warlords. Do you agree?

Noor: Having fought for your country and people is the greatest honor one can be proud of. Look around the world: Lincoln, Churchill, Napoleon. What would the French say about Napoleon?

I made a sacrifice for my country, having fought for its honor, sovereignty, and integrity. I will do it again if I have to. After relative peace and stability prevailed in Afghanistan, I contributed to state building, reconstruction, and development. I take great pride in that.

RFE/RL: Most leaders in post-9/11 Afghanistan have evaded a transparent process of accountability. Would you be willing to volunteer for accountability to prove to the Afghan people that you have nothing to hide?

Noor: I have nothing to hide. I am all for greater transparency and accountability for those who live a public life as a politician.

RFE/RL: What are your future ambitions? Are you going to run for president in 2019?

Noor: I said recently that I have not yet decided whether I will be a presidential candidate representing my constituency. That is a decision that Jamiat-e Islami and my allies will make when the time is right. We will either have a single candidate or join a strong ticket.