MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan — A massive portrait of a middle-aged man towers over the Ferris wheel and giant mushrooms at an amusement park here. At night, the image is bathed in an ethereal light, visible from a quarter-mile away.
His admirers call him “Ustad,” or “Teacher.” His critics call him the King.
For more than a decade, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province, has controlled this northern region with an iron hand, imbued with the authority of the freedom fighter he was and the ultra-rich businessman he has become. Guns, militias and guile, as well as his ability to provide security, have made him one of the country’s most formidable strongmen.
To many war-weary Afghans, former warlords such as Noor — who are accused of human rights abuses yet rule with impunity — have to be marginalized for the nation to move into a new era. To their supporters, these former warlords remain a bulwark against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, possibly, the Islamic State, more vital than ever as the U.S. military mission edges to a close.
“If Ustad Atta is ever replaced as governor, there will be chaos here, and it will spread to other provinces,” declared Haji Abdul Wahab, a close friend who manages the park, which Noor built. “He’s got a special place in the hearts of Afghan people.”
Noor’s rise and endurance is a legacy of America’s longest war and an emblem of a fresh contest for influence. It pits the aspirations of Western-educated technocrats keen to transform Afghanistan against conservative ethnic and tribal strongmen determined to preserve the status quo. That struggle is becoming the definitive battle for the future of every aspect of the country’s affairs — from forming a new cabinet to tackling rampant corruption to engaging in peace talks with the Taliban.
“There’s a tug of war between two different ways of running the country,” said Peter Semneby, Sweden’s ambassador to Afghanistan. “It’s the traditional patronage way of running Afghanistan against the modern way of running a country, with respect for the constitution, laws and transparency.”
By the time U.S. forces left Iraq, conflict and occupation had destroyed many of the patronage networks, creating new elites. In Afghanistan, the traditional political order remains entrenched after more than 13 years of war, bolstered by American support, a weak central government and fears of a resurgent Taliban.
The ascent last year of President Ashraf Ghani, a U.S-educated former World Bank official, was widely seen as a key step in altering old notions of power. But Noor and other strongmen are challenging his efforts to strengthen the government’s authority. The U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal that ushered Ghani into his position “was a narrow victory for the modern way of running Afghanistan,” Semneby said. “But the patronage system is striking back.”
That system is visible across this sprawling provincial capital, the country’s fourth-largest city, graced with ancient shrines and modern construction projects. Billboards looming over intersections show Noor with influential former mujahideen leaders from years past. The message is unmistakably clear: Noor is the heir to their legacy.
An ethnic Tajik, Noor gained prominence in late 2001 as the top mujahideen commander in northern Afghanistan fighting the Taliban regime. With American funds and weapons, the rebels ousted the Islamists, paving the way for Noor to control the nation’s security forces in strategic Balkh province. In 2003, after a series of battles, he pushed out his main rival, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord, from its capital, Mazar-e Sharif. The next year, then-President Hamid Karzai made Noor provincial governor.
Under Karzai, the warlords thrived. The government either installed them in influential positions or left them alone. Many received funds from the United States and other Western powers to work alongside U.S. and NATO forces to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, further increasing their influence in Afghanistan’s political circles.
Broad-shouldered with an athletic build, Noor was a high school teacher — hence his nickname — before he joined the U.S.-backed mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He has since shaved his thick beard and traded his military uniform for tailored Western suits.
He has doled out parcels of land and jobs to hundreds of his former commanders and fighters, according to Western diplomats and human rights activists. Noor exerts influence over the media, judicial system and commercial life here. He’s said to control lucrative customs revenue as well as dozens of companies, some of which receive Western-funded government contracts.
In late 2001 and early 2002, forces under Noor’s command carried out a campaign of looting and rape against ethnic Pashtuns, whose tribesmen make up a majority of the Taliban, according to Human Rights Watch. Today, Noor commands a network of militias, some of which have been implicated in numerous violations, including killings, beatings, abductions, extortion and land seizures.
“Because of the regular and ongoing nature of abuses, it is credible to allege that Atta is either aware of the abuses and directly complicit, or he is indirectly culpable for failing to stop the abuses and hold perpetrators accountable,” said John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy director.
A confidential 2011 security report by the U.S. and NATO-led coalition forces, obtained by The Washington Post, found that Noor sought to bolster his political position “by using his patronage network to assassinate and harass political opponents.” The report added that Noor’s “relationship with criminals, especially drug traffickers, has likely been profitable and contributed to [his] financial resources.“
Anyone who opposes him is a target, his critics say.
“Because of Atta’s power, I can no longer do my work freely,” said Shamsuddin Shams, 51, an ethnic Uzbek activist and former businessman who has openly criticized Noor. Noor, he said, confiscated his lands by force, threw him in prison several times and shut down a university he had launched.
Noor did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. He has publicly denied allegations of abuses and corruption. In interviews, his friends and close associates insisted that he is so wealthy that he does not need to subsist on graft or violence.
“There’s no truth to what his enemies say about him,” said Zahir Wahdat, the deputy governor of the province and also a former mujahideen commander.
Noor’s supporters contend that he and other strongmen are Afghanistan’s true leaders and have sacrificed immensely for the nation. They disdain technocrats such as Ghani who spent much of their adult lives in the United States and Europe, returning only after the Taliban was ousted.
“Who has destroyed this country for the past 13 years? It’s the people who came from the West,” said Mowlana Farid, a close friend of Noor’s for three decades. “These people with Western ideas have given a bad name to the mujahideen, calling them warlords. Instead of disrespecting them, they have to be respected.”
At Balkh Gate, the main entrance to the city, police officers search cars for weapons. Travelers cannot enter unless they deposit their guns and pick them up on the way out. In no other province in Afghanistan does that happen. The policemen are supposed to report to the nation’s Interior Ministry. But it’s clear where their allegiance lies.
“If we had a committed person like Ustad Atta in every province, Afghanistan would be secure,” said Hamidullah Chamto, the police commander at the gate, which was emblazoned with another giant portrait of Noor.
Mazar-e Sharif is widely viewed as the safest city in the country, largely due to Noor’s intelligence, police and military forces. In one recent incident, kidnappers snatched a 4-year-old boy, a relative of a well-known politician. Noor ordered that 5,000 photos of the child be distributed and closed all roads leading out of the city.
“The kidnappers released the child by the afternoon,” recalled Mohammad Moeen Marastial, the politician, who is a close Ghani ally. “Atta has people everywhere.”
That helps explain why Noor remains governor despite the allegations. In Noor, the United States and its allies see someone who can keep the north secure at a time when the Taliban are making inroads outside of their traditional power centers in the south and east.
But Noor and other strongmen have also emerged as the most powerful opposition to Ghani, even as the president forges the closest relationship an Afghan leader has had with Washington in decades.
During last year’s elections, Noor was a key supporter of Abdullah Abdullah, also a prominent former mujahideen figure. Noor publicly criticized Ghani and vowed to create a parallel government in the north if Ghani was elected. Ghani, in turn, vowed to tackle what he described as the illegal activities of Noor and other former warlords — and remove them from their influential positions.
The power-sharing deal brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, under which Abdullah became the country’s chief executive, staved off potential chaos. But it boosted the influence of Noor and other strongmen aligned with Abdullah. Forced to make compromises, Ghani now leads an administration filled with former warlords, including Dostum, who is his vice president.
“If Ustad Atta doesn’t himself want to be replaced, no one can replace him,” Wahdat said.
In January, members of parliament loyal to the old patronage system rejected more than half the ministers Ghani had appointed to his cabinet, which still is not fully functioning. Some Karzai loyalists and former mujahideen commanders have voiced displeasure with Ghani’s attempts to enter peace talks with the Taliban. Ghani has also had a difficult time persuading Noor and other strongmen in charge of border areas to release vital customs revenue to the government.
“Ghani has a vision for a more unified country, and that runs up hard against Atta’s sense of independence,” said Graeme Smith, Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Noor has aspirations to become leader of the ethnic Tajiks, potentially positioning himself for even greater influence, Western diplomats and analysts said. Even Ghani’s closest friends say it is unlikely that he will fire Noor as governor in the near future. They are more worried that the Taliban or other militants will gain ground — or that other former warlords who have committed even graver abuses, such as Dostum, could seize control of the north.
“The government has too many problems,” said Marastial. “If I was in Ghani’s position, for the stability of Afghanistan, it would be better if Atta stays in his position.”