5 years, 6 months ago
In a country still gripped by war, the families picnicking around the azure-domed shrine in the central square here are perhaps the clearest sign that this northern provincial city has distinguished itself as one of the most secure places in the country. An estimated one million people visited Mazar-i-Sharif for Afghan New Year celebrations in March and in the weeks after without incident.
It helps, of course, that Mazar-i-Sharif and the surrounding Balkh Province lie far from the Pakistani border and the heartland of the Taliban insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But there is something else that sets Mazar-i-Sharif apart, almost everyone here agrees, and that is the leadership of the provincial governor, Atta Muhammad Noor.
Some regard Mr. Noor, 46, a former mujahedeen commander and an ethnic Tajik, as a thinly disguised warlord who still exercises an unhealthy degree of control across much of the north and who has used that influence to grow rich through business deals during his time in power since 2001.
But there is little doubt that Mr. Noor has also managed to do in his corner what President Hamid Karzai has failed to achieve in other parts of Afghanistan: bring development and security, with a good measure of public support, to regions divided by ethnic and political rivalries.
For that, Mr. Noor has slowly gained the attention and support of Western donors and become something of a study in what kind of governing, imperfect as it is, produces results in Afghanistan.
Since 2001, American and other Western officials have tried to buttress the central government under Mr. Karzai as a means of securing Afghanistan by weakening powerful regional warlords and bringing lucrative customs revenues into the state coffers. Mr. Karzai has installed political allies as governors around the country, yet many have failed to provide security or services and have indulged in corruption, alienating Afghans from the government at all levels.
Supporters of Mr. Noor say he has made the transition from bearded guerrilla fighter to business-suited manager. Though many presume he has used his position of power to make money, Mr. Noor speaks out against corruption and has apparently checked it enough to maintain public support. That support has enhanced security, and the security has allowed others to prosper, too, another important reason that he has maintained popular backing.
Such is his support that Mr. Noor is the one governor whom President Karzai has been unable to replace, or has chosen not to, even after Mr. Noor campaigned against him in the presidential election last year.
A skillful politician, Mr. Noor has also gained the upper hand over some formidable political rivals, solidifying his power in the region as they left to take up posts in Kabul, including even Mr. Karzai’s ally, the Uzbek militia leader Abdul Rashid Dostum.
In an interview in his lavish party offices, Mr. Noor denied rumors that he takes a cut of every investment that flows through the region and said he made his money legally — he has interests in oil, wood trading, fertilizer and construction, among other things. “In legal ways, I did do a lot of work,” he said. “I did my own business.”
Instead, he criticized Mr. Karzai’s management of the country and said the president never followed through on plans to regulate revenue collection, policing and relations between the central government and the provinces. He derided Mr. Karzai’s efforts to curb corruption, saying the president should not appoint corrupt people in the first place.
Mr. Karzai had also failed to act as the Taliban insurgency spread into the north in recent years, he said.
“If we don’t have the cooperation of the people, you cannot stop it,” he said of the insurgency. “There has to be a deep contact between the people and the government. If officials are not embezzling or taking bribes, then definitely the people will trust the government.”
It isn’t clear whether Noor’s scolding of Karzai is an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. This is also very far to the North – in Northern Alliance territory (and the Taliban aren’t likely to be able to take the area, especially with Abdul Rashid Dostum still there). But there is one thing that is becoming more apparent with the passage of time. Our alignment with Karzai is more than just an alignment with corruption. It’s an alignment with incompetent corruption.
Karzai is showing himself more and more as a man who cannot govern, a man who cannot accomplish even the basic things necessary to make a state function, and a man who cannot be taken seriously. Without U.S. forces present, his government would likely become chaotic and fall within months. Afghanistan (or parts of it) can be governed, but Hamid Karzai cannot do it.