At home with Afghanistan’s ‘King of the North’

Governor of Balkh province Atta Mohammad Noor has cut violence and corruption but fears for future remain


Arriving in Mazar-e Sharif, it would be easy to think the pilot got lost, accidently left Afghanistan, and then landed in a different country altogether. The airport is brand new, as are the roads leading into the city. There are traffic lights. That work. And drivers obey them. It really is astonishing.

Mazar-e Sharif is the capital of Balkh province in the north of Afghanistan, and is the old capital of the Northern Alliance, the various groups of mujahideen who combined to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, and subsequently the Taliban in the 1990s. In all likelihood, the city will become the de facto capital of a semi-autonomous region if/when civil war erupts again, as is expected after the US-led coalition leaves.

The city is ruled by Atta Mohammad Noor, known as “The King in the North”. To some he is a dictatorial, mass-murdering warlord, while others hail him as a defender of his people and a champion of development and free enterprise. Whatever the truth, it is widely accepted that his authoritarian approach to governing dramatically reduced violence and corruption, thus creating the conditions for vast reconstruction projects and a considerable growth in business and trade.

Unity in soccer
In September 2013 the Afghan soccer team won the South Asian Football Federation Cup, bringing a rare moment of unity to Afghanistan. Spontaneous celebrations broke out across the whole country, and the nation celebrated together, briefly oblivious to ethnic divisions.

Now the team had arrived in Mazar, and young men in football shirts thronged the tent in anticipation. But the real star of the show was Atta, and he knew it. He worked the crowd into a frenzy, and quickly turned his praise of the unified soccer team into a call for unity amongst the people of Afghanistan, especially the youth.

“We should forget about the gun and put all talk of weapons and ammunition behind us,” Atta proclaimed to the ecstatic crowd, as struggling air-conditioners blew hot air into the sweltering marquee. “Dear friends, dear youngsters, you are the future leaders of this country. Strive in every aspect of your lives to unite our society,” he said. “Those who are focused on the ethnic divisions, those who see only our differences, they achieve nothing. Amongst you, nobody mentioned Tajik, Pashtun, Arab, Nurastani or Pashai. In one voice, you all said, ‘Long live Afghanistan’.”

Later in the day he held court for privileged guests at the governor’s building. Sitting in his opulent office, surrounded by bodyguards and bomb-sniffing dogs, in a structure that looked more like a medieval castle than a modern workplace, Atta cut a dapper figure, with a finely tailored suit and matching silk tie and pocket square.

“This country has been at war for more than 30 years, living with sorrow and unrest. The crises and challenges have been relentless,” he told me. “With God’s help, we will save our society from unemployment, and protect our people from drug addiction, social unrest and war.”

Presidential election
The upcoming presidential election, scheduled for April 2014, is by far the biggest challenge the country faces, and Atta is realistic and frank in speaking about it.

“According to law, and according to the Afghan constitution, President [Hamid] Karzai can’t run for a third term as president. The world should not allow our government to delay the election and extend their own term in office, or, God forbid, allow corruption in the election.”

Relations between Atta and Karzai have never been warm, but now, like many, many Afghans, Atta is exasperated with his president. Over the past year Karzai has been battling with the US administration continuously. Particularly vexing to the Americans is his refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement, which the US insists it must have in order to keep their military and civilian advisers in Afghanistan after their main withdrawal in 2014.

Climactic point
The brinkmanship reached a climactic point towards the end of 2013, with the US stating if the agreement was not signed before the end of the year, they would have to start planning for their “zero option” – the total withdrawal of all troops and financial assistance. Karzai stated publicly that he wouldn’t be bullied, and that he believed the US was bluffing.

In an embarrassing climbdown, the Americans did relent and talks remain ongoing, however frosty. But the relationship between Karzai and Barack Obama is effectively broken, and this presents a very worrying future for Afghanistan.

Atta Mohammed Noor summed up the situation best when he said: “We are afraid that the West will abandon us because of the actions of one man . . . just like in the ’90s.”

Out on the streets there is also grave concern for the future. Sitting in his shop, packed to the ceiling with beautiful handmade Afghan carpets, Satter Bigzada explains the concerns of the ordinary people.

“Why are we not hopeful for the future? Those people who are now our leaders once fought against each other. Perhaps they will fight again for power,” he says, referring to the bitter civil war that tore the country apart after the Soviets finally retreated from the country after 10 brutal and ultimately unsuccessful years of fighting.

Like many Afghans, Bigzada feels the leaders of the country are focused more on lining their own pockets than protecting their people. “They should work towards the future to stop the fighting, stop the killing, to stop lawlessness, stop cruelty, stop abuse of power. The king and the peasant should have the same rights.”

Drug addiction
Drug addiction is a problem in Mazar-e Sharif, just as in Herat. But Mazar has a small drug treatment clinic that is tackling the addiction problem head on.

When I visited, there was one patient going through the initial 72-hour detox treatment. Lying on a spartan metal bunk bed, the poor man tossed this way and that, his whole body twitching as his fingers fumbled over imaginary syringes in his arm, while his eyes rolled in his head.

On the women’s ward, Dr Wajkma Rateb talked about two of her patients, a young mother and her four-month-old baby. “She was treated here previously while she was pregnant,” Rateb said. “When they delivered the baby, the woman had some problems with bleeding. Her mother-in-law told her to take opium to reduce the problem and so she became addicted again.”

And then, she told the worst part of the story. “Because the baby was crying so much, they gave it opium too. The baby is four months old and it is underweight. It has no appetite because of its addiction.”

It’s a tragic but all too common tale. Patients from remote regions have little access to medical facilities or education, and are often unaware of the dangers of drug abuse.

Watching the wretched mother try to calm and sooth her baby, it was clear that a concerted and large-scale plan is needed to tackle drug use in Afghanistan. But there are currently fewer than 2,000 beds available for treatment in a country with one million addicts. As the Americans prepare to leave in 2014, many powerful and successful Afghans claim they are being abandoned. But in reality it seems that a million Afghans have already been abandoned, by their own people.

John D McHugh reports from the Taliban stronghold of Jalalabad

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