Provincial leader denounces the "weak, lazy and corrupt" Kabul government to thousands of supporters in daily rallies
Stand-off over powerful Afghan governor foreshadows bitter election fight
A stand-off between Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful provincial governor he is trying to remove from his northern stronghold, is increasingly turning into a battle over next year's presidential election.
Mr Noor, a leader in the Jamiat-i Islami party and governor of the strategic province of Balkh, is defying Ghani, denouncing the "weak, lazy and corrupt" Kabul government in daily rallies with thousands of supporters and warning the government against trying to remove him by force.
The deadlock, which has alarmed Western embassies and sparked fears of civil violence, has highlighted a fractious political climate that threatens to undermine recent battlefield successes resulting from more US air strikes. Mr Noor accuses Mr Ghani of wanting to both remove a potential rival and divide Jamiat before the presidential election which is likely to be shaped by the ethnic faultlines that dominate Afghan politics, especially between Pashtuns and Persian-speaking Tajiks.
"This is about the 2019 presidential election," Mr Noor said at his office in the provincial capital Mazar-i Sharif, where his portrait adorns streets and buildings across the city. "They have no grass roots support among the people and they are afraid of public figures who do."
President Ghani has not explained why he last month announced he had accepted a letter of resignation from Mr Noor, who has ruled Balkh province for more than a decade.signed earlier last year during negotiations over a possible national role for the governor who has ruled Balkh for more than a decade.
But Mr Noor says the letter, which has not been made public, was conditional on the president taking certain steps. He has not done so , therefore Mr Noor refuses to go. Mr Ghani has made no public comment about the stand-off.
Mr Noor, a former mujahiddin commander who fought against Soviet forces, is considered one of the richest men in Afghanistan and has often been accused of corruption, which he denies. In 2015 Human Rights Watch said there was "strong evidence that he controls and funds local militias implicated in serious abuse".
But Balkh, located on vital trade routes into central Asia, is also one of Afghanistan's most stable and prosperous provinces, with a much smaller Taliban and ISIL presence than in other northern regions. Mr Noor enjoys strong support, notably from a business community that has done well out of the lucrative transit trade through Hairatan, the border crossing into Uzbekistan that handles hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods a year.
"People have been very unhappy about the problems between the president and the governor," said Khairuddin Mayel, who runs a large cooking oil and foods business. "The governor has been very successful and people don't want this province to become like the others. They do not want to lose this governor."
The stand-off in Balkh has now become a national issue, with Mr Noor now demanding further concessions, including what his party regards as proper implementation of the accord underpinning Mr Ghani's national unity government.
Like many of the political problems of the past three years, the crisis stems from the 2014 presidential election which produced no clear winner. Under a US-brokered deal, Mr Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, was appointed president while his rival Abdullah Abdullah, from Jamiat, was given the specially created post of chief executive. But Jamiat bitterly resent what they perceive as President Ghani's favouritism towards Pashtuns, who are traditionally the strongest group in Afghan politics.
And while Mr Noor is angry with Mr Ghani, he is equally incensed by Mr Abdullah, his party rival, whom he describes as a "snake".Mr Abdullah has confirmed he had approved the decision to oust the governor,
"Jamiat will never trust Dr Abdullah," he said. "He has shown he is weak and a partner in the incompetence and crimes of the government."
The dispute has also highlighted the role of a clutch of powerful regional leaders over whom central government has little control. Over recent months, Ghani has sidelined several of them, forcing ethnic Uzbek vice-president Rashid Dostum into exile following a torture scandal. Mr Noor joined him in Turkey last June to form a "Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan", uniting figures from the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities.
He has also clashed with General Abdul Raziq, a powerful police commander with a growing national profile thanks to his successes against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar.
Mr Noor said they, and other regional leaders, represented a reality that could not be ignored.
"We have powerful political parties, influential figures, those who have grass roots support among the people. They will remain in Afghanistan and will fight against terrorism as they fought in the past."