But here in the provincial capital, Noor’s imposing image is everywhere, and many people say he is still in charge. His appointed replacement, Gov. Mohammad Ishaq Rahgozar, refers to Noor as “Excellency,” and the local government TV channel gives Noor’s activities and pronouncements much greater prominence.
“The real governor is Ustad Atta. Rahgozar has a symbolic role,” said Hedayat Najafi, 22, a grocery owner in a run-down neighborhood. “I have not seen the new governor’s posters so far.” Ustad, which means teacher, is used as a term of respect.
While Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, kept regional bosses on his side with perks and patronage, Ghani has tried to restrain them — with limited success. He has had particularly brutal fights with northern strongmen including Noor and Abdurrashid Dostum, who served as a vice president to Ghani but is now exiled in Turkey.
Noor has made no secret of his interest in running against Ghani next year, although he says he will defer to the wishes of his political party, Jamiat-i-Islami, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks like himself. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun, and the two groups have long been political rivals.
Meanwhile, Noor still seems to have the run of his old realm. He recently took part in a week-long military operation against the Taliban in a rural district of Balkh. Photos of him in a camouflage police uniform were shared on social media.
Local officials said he was there to advise Rahgozar on how to fight the Taliban. Noor, while denying that he was interfering in the new governor’s work, said he had headed the mission.
“If I hadn’t led the operation, the Taliban would soon have reached nearby villages,” Noor said in a written response to questions. He said his support helped with clearing villages and setting up fortified outposts to stop Taliban advances.
Just getting Noor to relinquish his title as governor was a battle. He had built Balkh into a prosperous province and kept out insurgents, becoming rich in the process. He openly resisted Ghani’s dismissal order for months, sparking fears of a civil war, and warned the president not to use force to remove him.
The standoff became so tense that Vice President Pence intervened, calling for a peaceful handover of power. After Ghani made additional concessions, Noor finally agreed.
According to Afghan media reports and documents provided to The Washington Post by aides to Noor, those concessions included allowing Noor to name his own successor as well as the provincial police chief, two federal cabinet ministers and two ambassadors.
Both his continued high-profile role in Balkh and his demands to choose senior government officials may be part of a strategy to launch a presidential bid. Noor has been mobilizing supporters to take part in parliamentary elections slated for October and meeting with ethnic Pashtun, Hazara and Uzbek leaders to build alliances.
But analysts said he will have to do some tricky maneuvering within his own party. Jamiat-i-Islami has long been divided among several factions and leaders, including Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s chief executive, whom Noor backed in elections against both Karzai and Ghani.
Noor, who has played an outsize and sometimes disruptive role in post-Taliban politics, may have to bide his time if Abdullah decides to seek the presidency again or endorses someone else. As Thomas Ruttig of the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network put it, Noor “seems to be the single strongest leader, but other leaders combined together are stronger than him.”
In Balkh, though, he has always been king.
“Neither law nor central government had power over him,” said Mohammad Ibrahim Khairandesh, a member of the Balkh provincial council. “His influence over Balkh will last long.”
Ghani originally appointed another man to replace Noor as governor, but he rejected the choice and proposed four alternatives, including Rahgozar, according to Afghan media reports and the documents provided by Noor’s aides. The new governor is a member of Jamiat-i-Islami who served under Noor in an anti-Soviet militia in the 1980s. Critics say they doubt he would ever say no to Noor’s demands.
“Noor had control over economic and military resources without being monitored for 14 years,” said Gul Rahman Hamdard, a Pashtun political opponent. “He will try to maintain control over these resources in the future.”
Hamdard said that for years, Noor appointed his relatives and fellow Jamiat-i-Islami members to key posts in the province. Today, one brother-in-law is deputy chief of intelligence and another is deputy chief of customs.
To many residents, Noor’s heavy-handed rule has been worth it. The Taliban is active in some parts of Balkh, but the province is one of the safest in the country. Mazar-e Sharif, a city of about 1 million, is relatively peaceful, with a vibrant nightlife. Families sit in parks and visit the city’s famous blue-domed shrine until midnight.
“No one dares to bother us. It is because of Ustad Atta,” said Sher Mohammad Hashemi, 56, a carpet seller near the shrine. “He has worked hard for the people. The government made a wrong decision to fire him.”
Ghulam Habib Jamshedi, 46, a biomedical engineer from Kabul, was relaxing with his family in an amusement park one recent evening. He said he had moved them here six months ago because the capital had become so insecure with repeated insurgent attacks. Mazar-e Sharif, he said, is “the safest place in the country.”
Other supporters praised Noor for bringing economic development to the region, including the riverside port of Hairatan that links Balkh with neighboring Uzbekistan. But critics have alleged that Noor and his close associates reaped most of the benefits, demanding fees from investors and steering lucrative contracts to allies.
He has also been accused of abusive behavior, including using his armed loyalists to intimidate opponents. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report found that a “network of militias under his effective command” has been “implicated in serious human rights abuses.”
Noor acknowledges that he operated private businesses in Balkh while serving as its governor, but he has repeatedly denied corruption allegations, saying they are “baseless” and concocted by his rivals.
“I have said time and again that there is not even one shred of evidence that they can provide to support their claim,” he said in his written response to questions.
To Noor’s many supporters, such concerns still pale in contrast to the oasis of safety and success he has built here.
“He is in our hearts,” said Razia Azra, 21, a student at Balkh University. “We will support him until we die.”
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