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Northern Power Struggle Overshadows Afghan Leader's Pledge for No Parallel Governments

Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is a longtime rival of Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor.
Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is a longtime rival of Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor.

The apparent reconciliation between the new Afghan president and an influential governor has calmed fears of a destabilizing rift within the Afghan government.

However, a decade-old struggle between two major power brokers in a strategic, multi-ethnic northern region continues to overshadow the country's new national unity government.

In his inaugural speech, President Ashraf Ghani pledged his national unity administration would bring an end to all parallel governments in Afghanistan.

Although Ghani refused to name names in the September 29 address, some Afghans interpreted his words as a reference to Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of the northern Afghan province of Balkh. Noor had threatened protests and warned that he would form a parallel government if Ghani was declared the winner of this year's disputed presidential election.

A few days later, the two apparently reconciled when Noor met Ghani at the presidential palace in Kabul to offer his congratulations.

"Noor said that our country has entered a new phase of history," a government press release on October 2 read. "He [said he] would support any decision made by the national unity government regarding the removal and appointment of governors for better governance in Afghanistan."

A statement by Noor on Facebook the same day echoed the sentiment: "[Governor] Noor pointed out that the president and the new chief executive have the authority to appoint and remove ministers and governors."

Atta Mohammad Noor
Atta Mohammad Noor

Noor's opinions of Ghani, however, vocalized even after the conclusion of the national unity government deal, tell a different story. In a September 23 interview with Voice of America Dari, Noor said that Ghani was not an elected president.

"Although I may congratulate him [Ghani], I am not necessarily congratulating him as the elected president," he told VOA. "I would never congratulate him as the winner of a legal, legitimate election based on a democratic process and the vote and will of the people."

During the long and arduous election campaign, Noor emerged as the main backer of Ghani's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who is now the chief executive officer in the national unity government.

Ghani's first vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is a longtime rival of Noor's. Since the early 1990s, the former militia leaders have fought over control of Mazar-e Sharif, a major commercial hub and the capital of Balkh Province, which borders Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Noor, a senior leader of the Islamist group Jamiat-e Islami, once called his former communist rival "an infamous thief and bandit whose rule was not acceptable to the people of Balkh."

The rivalry between the two continued after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 when Noor pushed Dostum out of Mazar-e Sharif.

Said Ali Rahraw, head of the Afghanistan Association for Peace, in Mazar-e Sharif, said Noor built a formidable power base in that city during his uninterrupted 13-year stint as provincial governor.

"Noor gained power inside his Jamiat-e Islami faction and benefited from government power to publicize the development and progress he has pioneered in [Mazar-e Sharif] and the north," he said.

Abdul Momin Makreet, a leader of Balkh's Turkic community, says that with Dostum serving as the first vice president, Noor will lose his power in the north because his original power base was weaker compared with Dostum's. "[In the past,] he enjoyed the support of the Karzai administration through [late Vice President Marshal Qasim] Fahim," Makreet said.

Latif Muwaed, a political analyst in Balkh, says Noor still enjoys formidable support in northern Afghanistan. "It is clear Noor has worked for the people, and they stand behind him," he said. "This does not mean he has military power; military power doesn’t currently matter. Nowadays, what matters is popular power."

Rahraw, however, foresees major changes in Balkh if Ghani were to establish a meritocracy ― one of his major campaign promises.

Ghani has moved swiftly to implement his election promises by signing stalled security agreements with the United States and NATO and reopening investigations into Afghanistan's biggest financial scandal.

Noor is adamant that, for now, he is secure. He told VOA that his election team shares power in the government and that it would be difficult for Ghani to have him removed.

"It will not be easy for a president who was appointed because of a political agreement to instantly make such a decision," he said.

Afghans are now closely watching whether Ghani will move against Noor.