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Behind one sparkling Afghan city, a strongman's hand

Atta Mohammad Noor governs Mazar-e-Sharif as a benevolent strongman who keeps the peace and attracts investment. Is that the model this nation now needs? 

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Two Afghan boys release a pigeon beside the ancient Blue Mosque as Afghans go about daily life despite security fears of a resurgent Taliban in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, on November 10, 2015.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

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In a nation battling a resurgence of Taliban fighters and insecurity, this city is something different: Its new airport is gleaming and would put many European hubs to shame. Under the rule of strongman governor Atta Mohammad Noor, the road crews here in Mazar-e Sharif are putting down perfect, steaming layers of new asphalt.

Afghanistan may be challenged by weak government and donor apathy, but Mr. Noor has long delivered security in the northern Balkh Province. In this part of the world, that brings political power. Noor also shows a business acumen that attracts foreign cash. As a teacher-turned-mujahideen commander, he’s known as a strategic planner able to harness this nation's dual desire for stability and development.

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After 11 years of rule, critics say Noor’s grip on security services – and nearly every business transaction – is total. But that presents a real conundrum for this nation: Is the only effective leader in Afghanistan today an autocratic strongman?

Warlords are nothing new

His critics say Noor pressures local media to minimize bad news about rising insecurity, like local killings and kidnappings. A brazen Taliban attack last April on the local attorney general’s office that left 24 people dead – just around the corner from Noor’s own fortified office complex – was for many a wake-up call.

Afghans well know the perils of authoritarian local leaders. The term “warlord” has been used for decades.  Many of these strong figures are neither effective nor benevolent; the worst appear harmful at a time when institutions in the capital, Kabul, are weak.

But in the face of the real issues of Taliban insurgency, corruption, and misrule, is Noor the best option?

“At a time when lots of the country is on fire, I think there is some appreciation for pockets of stability like Mazar,” says a Western official in Kabul who could not be further identified. Yet he points out that, “You’ve created a very fragile system that is dependent on a single personality, so if that one personality gets killed or leaves, you’ve got a very difficult situation.”

To be sure, Noor has benefited from geography. This province is far from the eastern and southern regions of Afghanistan, where the Taliban have hit hardest.

But now rumors are circulating of an imminent, complex Taliban attack on this city. And there are rumors, too, that Noor’s long run may soon be over if President Ashraf Ghani names a successor.

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Shrapnel-riddled furniture

The new risk is evident at the attorney general’s office, where a mountain of bullet and shrapnel-riddled furniture has yet to be removed from the April blast.

“If the media and Kabul dignitaries told you that Balkh is safe, that is a big mistake,” says Said Zahir Masroor, a local member of parliament. He ticks off the names of more than half of Balkh’s districts that he says are “under the influence” of Islamists and the Taliban, where people can’t safely travel from village to village.

“Security becomes worse day by day. Compared to a year ago, it has become very bad,” says Mr. Masroor, speaking at his guarded residence in Mazar-e Sharif.

He says “many people” no longer support Noor, and that there have been a number of killings and kidnappings, but “real news is not released” due pressure from the governor’s office.

The governor’s office disputes that it controls the media. Their officials say close cooperation among security forces has prevented several Taliban attacks in recent months.

“Balkh is more secure than other provinces, and the reason is our champion leader,” says the governor’s spokesman, Monir Farhad. “In Balkh the Taliban are very strong – they are not weak, [but] in no district, in no village will anyone help the Taliban.”

If fighting breaks out, Noor “wears a uniform and goes to the frontline,” says Mr. Farhad. “I wish other governors would be like this.”

Noor’s large profile has aided him in attracting donors. Among big-ticket projects, the airport was funded by Germany and the United Arab Emirates; German money is paving the ring road around the city. Direct access to the border with Uzbekistan has also provided cash.

“You’ve seen the emergence of a single, preeminent strongman who has massive access to licit and illicit sources of revenue,” says the Western official, who jokingly describes Noor as “Lord of the Independent Republic of Mazaristan.”

The go-to guy in Mazar

“If you want to do business in Mazar … and many do,” he adds, Noor is “the go-to guy.”

Some people now say he is a thief and others complain that his control of information means that it appears that Noor as governor has orchestrated every improvement.

Yet again many locals say that life without Noor may not be so attractive.

“Balkh [Province] is a place where the governor is working and people respect him and obey him,” says Sara Bahai, a women’s rights activist and a female taxi driver – a job virtually exclusive to men in Afghanistan. “If a family has a good leader, the family does everything in a right way.”

Indeed, one young man approached a foreign visitor outside an ornate, turquoise-tiled shrine, just to praise Noor.

But the Taliban attack in April “made people feel insecure,” says civil society activist Hadia Essazada, who works for the Czech Republic organization People In Need, which saw nine of its staff in another district murdered in a private dispute in June. She says security is deteriorating fast.

“Two years ago I felt I lived in the most secure place in Afghanistan, but not now,” says Ms. Essazada. She can no longer walk after dark, and says she even feels insecure in her car “because something could go wrong.”