MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful governor in northern Afghanistan, visited a local amusement park last week and grabbed a video arcade gun. Firing on fictional aliens made a break from the frequent target of his ire: the government in Kabul.
Noor, a former general hardened in wars against the Soviets and Taliban but now suited and affluent, complains of a lack of leadership by President Ashraf Ghani and is angry his warnings of rising militant violence in the north were not heeded.
“They told me that they will take action, but unfortunately they didn’t,” the governor of Balkh province told Reuters, recalling a warning he gave Kabul several months ago to prepare for more Taliban violence in the north.
The dissatisfaction is one of Ghani’s main challenges; he must contain the Taliban, rally various strongmen behind a single cause and bridge differences with his partner in power, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Noor has emerged as one of the government’s biggest critics. He questions how the armed forces are being run, the handling of peace talks with the Taliban and Ghani’s relationship with Abdullah.
Ghani and Abdullah fought bitterly over the outcome of last year’s presidential election which they contested, and despite forming a unity government, mutual suspicion has slowed policy decisions, diplomats and analysts say.
Noor, 51, said neither the president nor the CEO had done much to solve the country’s problems.
“Whatever they do is a show,” Noor said in the interview at his palatial party offices in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh. “Instead, they should work honestly.”
Noor strongly backed Abdullah in the election, at one point threatening civil unrest over the outcome. Ultimately Ghani was deemed the winner, and Noor has distanced himself from the rivalry.
Asked what he thought was the government’s most significant achievement so far, he chuckled. “I cannot remember any successes at the moment.”
Ghani and Abdullah are aware of the grumblings of Noor and other regional power brokers. Both leaders declined to comment for this article.
Tensions between Kabul and the provinces are likely to grow if security deteriorates in the north, which had until recent years escaped the worst of the Taliban insurgency.
In April, militants stormed a court in Mazar-i-Sharif, killing eight people including the district police chief.
Nine Afghan employees of a Czech-backed aid group were killed in Balkh on Tuesday. People in Need said it was suspending all operations in Afghanistan.
In Kunduz, near Balkh, Afghan National Security Forces have been struggling for weeks to drive out Taliban fighters, leading the government to fall back on militias controlled by local commanders.
Noor said he believed Afghan security forces could fight on their own, provided they had better leadership, support and equipment. Most NATO troops withdrew at the end of 2014, significantly weakening Afghan defense options.
The governor, who has commanded his own militia in the past,
has been increasingly vocal on security matters and recently appeared on Afghan television wearing his old military uniform.
He said former resistance fighters should be recruited into official forces if they wanted to fight, and that if security worsened, militias could be an option “of last resort.”
One source of weakness in Afghan security has been the absence of a defense minister.
Tensions within the government between rival ethnic and regional interests have played out in the tortuous process to agree on a candidate.
Ghani has chosen a third nominee after the first was rejected by parliament and the second dropped out amid controversy. Masoom Stanikzai could face a similar fate, with Noor and some lawmakers deeply skeptical.
“He doesn’t have military qualifications and hasn’t done anything in the peace process,” Noor said of Stanikzai, who has been closely involved in a faltering attempt to negotiate peace with the Afghan Taliban.
“I’m sure he will not be a successful (defense) minister.”
Others agree. Tribal elders, lawmakers and other influential Afghans from across the country filed into Noor’s ornate offices to pay their respects and discuss affairs of state, and some had similar complaints to his.
“My vote is a no vote,” said Saifora Niazi, a parliamentarian from Balkh province. “The national unity government is imposing people like him (Stanikzai).”
Mawlawi Shahzada Shahid, spokesman for the High Peace Council of which Stanikzai is a member, defended his colleague’s record.
“He held several peace meetings inside and outside Afghanistan. Most of those meetings proved very successful. He brought hundreds of Taliban into normal lives,” said Shahid.
After evening prayers, Noor led visitors to a room in his compound for a feast, the table adorned with gold-plated cutlery and plates embossed with the insignia of the Jamiat-e-Islami party dominated by anti-Soviet “mujahideen” figures.
The walls of the corridors were lined with photographs of Noor and fellow mujahideen, including Ahmad Shah Masood, revered leader of the anti-Taliban resistance assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Later, a convoy of SUVs took Noor and his guests to the amusement park. The host grinned as he lined the aliens up in his sights.
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Editing by Mike Collett-White