“I wish you hadn’t been reappointed as the governor of Balkh province,” says a young representative from the neighboring Baghlan province of Afghanistan, in a room full of tribal elders, to Atta Mohammad Noor. “I wish you had been appointed as the leader to our province instead so we could be as prosperous as Balkh,” he adds, as heads nod in agreement around the room, almost on cue. The praise isn’t new for Noor, one of Afghanistan’s longest-lasting kingmakers.
Since 2004, he has been governor of Balkh in northern Afghanistan, though “governor” may be too modest a title. Noor’s control over Balkh is so absolute that locals joke a policeman won’t even draw his gun without checking with the governor. In a country continually on the brink, Balkh has been a rare oasis of security and economic stability, a critical nexus for trade with Central Asia and China — and one of the few places in Afghanistan where women can do business safely. The United States and other donor nations have backed Balkh’s success with considerable funding. And it’s nothing new to hear Noor, now in his 50s, pitched by his peers as a future leader of Afghanistan.
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