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12:22, 16 January 2018

The President, the Strongman, and the Subsequent U.S. Headache in Afghanistan


The President, the Strongman, and the Subsequent U.S. Headache in Afghanistan

The President, the Strongman, and the Subsequent U.S. Headache in Afghanistan

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MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Atta Muhammad Noor, a strongman who has ruled a prosperous northern Afghan province a lot more like a king than a governor for 13 years, was driving amongst meetings in Dubai final month when he got the call: President Ashraf Ghani was firing him.

For 3 years, Mr. Ghani had tried to ease Mr. Noor, 54, a commander of the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets who then became a warlord in the civil war and in the battle against the Taliban, out of his spot as governor of Balkh Province, the country’s commercial hub. Negotiations more than a deal that would see Mr. Noor ultimately leave in return for much more government seats for his political party faltered. And when Mr. Noor started meeting with other important regional energy brokers who had been also critics of the president, Mr. Ghani decided he had ultimately had sufficient. He ordered Mr. Noor out.

The Afghan president could have miscalculated.

Because returning to Balkh, not only has Mr. Noor rejected the Afghan president’s firing of him, but he is employing his defiance of the American-backed administration in Kabul as a platform to project himself as a player in the presidential elections that are supposed to take place subsequent year.

A regional power’s rejection of the central government has lengthy been noticed as a probably test for the heavily centralized but potentially fragile Afghan state set up right after 2001.

Now the standoff among Mr. Noor and Mr. Ghani, which has dragged on for practically a month, has turn into a painfully public test of how far the United States will go to support the Afghan president against a widening, although not united, opposition.

“They had been pondering I was the same as the governors they had appointed with a piece of paper and removed with a piece of paper,” Mr. Noor said final week, in an interview with The New York Instances in the governor’s office. “I am the operational chief of a powerful political party, I am portion of a sturdy coalition, and the individuals trust me for who I am, for my charisma.”

Mr. Noor (foreground center) listening to supporters in the course of a gathering at the governor’s compound.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Mr. Noor said the work to remove him was tied to political machinations around the presidential elections subsequent year, when Mr. Ghani wants to be re-elected, but it remains unclear how.

“We are a wonderful capacity for votes throughout elections. They are attempting to marginalize us, and we won’t take it quietly,” Mr. Noor said. “If my party and my allies agree, it’s attainable that I will be a candidate — as the head of the ticket.”

He added: “I don’t like getting No. 2.”

One event that probably contributed to Mr. Noor’s firing occurred about two months ago, when fuel trucks contracted by NATO have been blocked by his forces in Balkh. Mr. Noor said the trucks were making use of NATO’s tax-exempt status to import illegal fuel. Some officials, nevertheless, speaking on condition of anonymity to steer clear of angering Mr. Noor and his allies, recommended that the trucks were stopped simply because they have been refusing to spend Mr. Noor’s men a cut.

Afghan officials say the episode angered Gen. John W. Nicholson, the leading American commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Ghani’s aides utilized it in their lobbying against Mr. Noor, arguing that the former warlord was not only against the Afghan president, but also his American allies.

Mr. Noor appeared unconcerned.

“Nicholson ought to not have gotten upset,” Mr. Noor stated. “Nicholson must have called me, like a man, and asked for data on what had happened.”

Demonstrators displaying their support for Mr. Noor although on their way to the compound.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Instances

In December, Mr. Ghani’s government, with the aid of the NATO coalition, which nonetheless controls Afghan airspace, refused Mr. Noor’s plane permission to to fly to the southern province of Kandahar to attend an opposition rally. In July, a plane carrying Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan vice president who is exiled in Turkey on charges of abducting and raping an opponent and has become a strong ally of Mr. Noor, was denied landing in Balkh, where he was supposed to attend a rally organized by Mr. Noor.

By means of it all, Mr. Noor has been attempting to remain afloat, and some even see his meetings as the moves of a prospective candidate who is testing his prospects for a larger move. According to a number of Afghan officials, these meetings included 1 in Dubai last month with Erik D. Prince, the former chief executive of the Blackwater private safety firm, who has not too long ago proposed a greater role for privatized security and intelligence operations in Afghanistan.

Mr. Noor would not confirm those reports of a meeting with Mr. Prince, who has ties to the Trump administration and whose sister, Betsy DeVos, is the education secretary. But he was clear about seeking channels for American assistance. “I saw robust people who have connections to the White Home,” Mr. Noor stated.

As successor to Mr. Noor, Mr. Ghani’s government announced Mohammed Dawood, a former guerrilla from Mr. Noor’s faction who, for the past two decades, has lived in London and run a luggage shop there. Denied entry into Balkh, Mr. Dawood has set up workplace in the diplomatic quarters in Kabul, exactly where, in preparation for a future part that may in no way materialize, he has dyed his beard pitch black, ordered new three-piece suits, and appointed a spokesman who represents him on tv shows.

“Right now, I am waiting to hear what the government says. It is completely up to them to decide when and how to take me to Balkh,” Mr. Dawood stated throughout an interview at the guest property the government has offered for him in Kabul.

Mr. Noor sees Mr. Dawood as “an exhausted tool against me” and says there is no way the man could turn out to be governor. The crisis could only be resolved via negotiations with his celebration, which are ongoing in Kabul, he mentioned.

Mohammed Dawood, named by the Afghan president as Mr. Noor’s replacement, at his temporary workplace in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Instances

Mr. Noor’s military and political reputation has been deeply tied to his house province for decades, and it has offered him deep leverage with each the West and the government in Kabul. About $1.7 billion worth of goods transited by way of just one particular of Balkh Province’s ports final year, like fuel contracted by NATO. Mr. Noor is also believed to have armed militias in the north, which Human Rights Watch has accused of substantial abuses.

More than 15 years, Mr. Noor has developed a vast network of companies and patronage centered on Balkh and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, lengthy a center of trade and interaction with Central Asia. These relationships have brought him and his allies wealth that affords them a lavish life style, but also sources for a network of militia commanders across several provinces.

In attempting to take Mr. Noor down, Mr. Ghani’s aides have portrayed him as helplessly corrupt, saying that he requires a cut from each business, and that he has hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in foreign bank accounts. But Mr. Noor insists that his earnings has come from clean organization dealings, and that his earnings have all been piled into his network of supporters and his political efforts.

For months just before his firing, an aloof Mr. Noor had mainly not bothered to show up at the governor’s workplace in Mazar. He attended to only the most significant of government company from 1 of his houses or guest homes, decorated with huge chandeliers, golden faucets, and far more than a dozen portraits of their owner.

But as quickly as he was fired, he started displaying up to the workplace every day. Behind numerous layers of security, Mr. Noor now meets hundreds of folks every day, giving rousing speeches that are broadcast reside on many national television channels. And he has repeatedly utilised the language of force.

One of the most frequent targets of his verbal abuse has been Abdullah Abdullah, a former Northern Alliance figure who now serves as Mr. Ghani’s coalition companion in the Afghan government.

“I will smash your teeth!” Mr. Noor mentioned in a callout to Mr. Abdullah, a former ally whom he now denounces as a sellout to Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Atta on stage in front of his supporters.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Occasions

Final Thursday, Mr. Noor, wearing black clothes and sunglasses even though ferried in a convoy of gloss-black armored autos, arrived at the governor’s workplace late in the afternoon. His aides stated he had been up considerably of the evening, pacing the room on the telephone or holding private audiences with visitors from Kabul.

As he listened to a extended list of speakers in a single auditorium, visitors had been getting seated into two adjacent halls where Mr. Noor would speak next. He seemed tired, attempting to hide his yawns as speaker after speaker called him lion, king, emperor. To each and every platitude, Mr. Noor merely bowed his head, his hand on his chest.

But when Mr. Noor took the podium, there was no sign of exhaustion. After once more, he lashed out at the government in Kabul. He said his party leaders were attempting to negotiate a answer in the capital, and that would be the only way out. But he asked his supporters to be prepared for civil protest — to have their “old tires” prepared for burning to block roads.

The speech swiftly turned into an election rally, with Mr. Noor saying the leaders of the government in Kabul had been blind to Afghans’ suffering via years of war.

“If I turn out to be president 1 day … ” Mr. Noor said, baiting the crowd. And they roared in response.

Then, gripping the podium — a $27,000 Omega watch on his wrist, a garnet ring with a halo of about 20 tiny diamonds on his finger — Mr. Noor talked about corruption. He mentioned the central government was rife with graft, as the two coalition leaders fattened their personal allies.

Even though a teacher was making $200 or significantly less a month, he mentioned, Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah were paying hundreds of useless advisers $5,000, $six,000, or much more. And how a lot was the price of renting an armored vehicle for every adviser?

“They are sucking the blood of the people,” Mr. Noor stated.

Mr. Noor’s face is observed on posters across Mazar-i-Sharif.CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Najim Rahim from Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jawad Sukhanyar, Fatima Faizi and Fahim Abed from Kabul, Afghanistan.

A version of this write-up seems in print on , on Web page Afour of the New York edition with the headline: A Standoff With Kabul Props Up A Strongman. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Published at Tue, 16 Jan 2018 00:37:45 +0000


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