In Afghanistan, a governor who answers to no one

The supplicants had come from all over the north of Afghanistan. Bowing as they made their way to the front of the ornate reception room, they bent one by one to kiss the hand of power.

Gov. Atta Mohammad Noor, the bushy beard of his days as a rough-hewn mujahedin commander long since replaced by fashionable stubble, had the satisfied look of a man receiving his due.

Atta, whom some critics call the personification of Afghanistan's deeply entrenched warlord culture, represents a quandary for the nations that supply the country with tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars in aid.

The United States and its allies are considering ways to skirt the corruption-tainted central government and invest local and provincial officials with more authority.

But in many parts of the country, such a strategy would augment the influence of other warlords such as Atta, many of whom carved out personal fiefdoms while rising to prominence in the long battle against the Soviet Union, the country's bloody civil war, and the push to topple the Taliban.

Among his constituents in Balkh province, Atta commands equal measures of fear and respect. People tend to glance around surreptitiously when asked about him; when they speak, it is in lowered tones, often referring to him as ustad -- teacher, or master.

Technically, Atta serves at the pleasure of President Hamid Karzai, who, as he embarks on a second term in office, is in the process of deciding which of the country's 34 governors will keep their jobs.

But few here believe that the beleaguered Afghan leader, although under international and domestic pressure to sever ties with warlords, would dare to move against Atta.

"It is I who will decide whether to stay on or not," the governor said, a faint smile playing across his face. "In the past, this government was already weak. It is even weaker now."

Over the summer, Atta openly defied Karzai by coming out in favor of his main rival for the presidency, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, a fellow ethnic Tajik and onetime comrade-in-arms in the Northern Alliance.

Even now, three months after Karzai was declared the winner of the clouded balloting, giant billboards of Atta and Abdullah still loom over the main thoroughfares of Mazar-i-Sharif, the provincial capital.

It is in the streets of Mazar, named for the sprawling blue-tiled shrine at its heart, that Atta's power is most acutely felt. Much of the city's prime real estate is in the hands of companies he owns or controls.

But it is also evident that his iron-fisted rule has brought certain benefits. The province is one of the most well-off and orderly in all Afghanistan, and it is nearly Taliban-free, with poppy cultivation all but quashed in recent years. Mazar is probably the safest of the country's large cities, only rarely hit by suicide bombings or even street crime.

"I can come to my shop at 6 a.m., when no one is around, and stay open late at night, and feel perfectly safe," said carpet seller Mohammed Asef. "People credit him for this."

But few doubt that Atta is capable of dealing with enemies as he sees fit. When a rival named Ashraf Ramazan was gunned down in Mazar in 2005 just after being elected to parliament, there were dark whispers that the killing could not have taken place without at least with Atta's tacit approval. He denied any involvement.

Amid Afghanistan's shifting fortunes of war, the line between politician and warlord can be extremely fluid. Atta disarmed militias in Balkh when he was appointed governor in 2004, a move that won him praise from international backers.

But even though he has traded his battlefield garb for designer suits, he has since boasted publicly that if necessary, he could swiftly raise an army of thousands, well provisioned with weapons. His business card refers to him as "full-rank general" first, and governor second.

Like most erstwhile militia leaders, Atta has a heavily armed corps of personal bodyguards that functions almost as a paramilitary force. He has seeded the provincial police force with supporters, and locals say he has a plethora of armed followers outside the ranks as well. They rarely parade their strength, but they don't have to.

"There are very few governors like Atta who would be able to tell the central government, 'No, I'm not listening to you, and I can do what I want,' " said Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "He has always intimidated the central government, and others."

As for Karzai, his ability to distance himself from warlord figures such as Atta is still very much in question. He chose two -- Mohammed Fahim and Karim Khalili -- as his vice presidents, who will serve for five years.

The Afghan president has also sought to repay the patronage of onetime militia commanders Ismail Khan and Rashid Dostum, both accused of serious human rights abuses, by offering Khan a spot in his Cabinet and ceding at least three other ministries to allies of Dostum.

Karzai's perceived use of plum political appointments to settle political debts to warlords helped set off a power struggle with lawmakers, who rejected most of his Cabinet picks in an initial round of voting. A new vote is likely in the coming week.

Some reformists say the president himself is too deeply enmeshed to tackle the problem. "Mr. Karzai is part of this warlord system," said former presidential candidate and lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost. "He has the same values, the same political friends. He doesn't want to cut ties with them."

Atta, who is thought to be in his 40s, will probably be a long-term complicating factor on his home turf whether or not he remains governor. His power base, said analyst Nasim Bahman of Maulana University in Mazar, includes "people who can destabilize things in an organized manner, if they choose."

Atta has long-running rivalries with several other regional strongmen, including Dostum. And in Afghanistan, such personal feuds often take on larger ethnic dimensions whose reverberations can be felt across the country.

Money, too, can be the tripwire for simmering enmities flaring into open violence. With NATO turning its attention to routing supplies through the north after persistent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban bogged down shipping from the south, Atta has moved quietly to assert control of the province's transport industry, a highly lucrative concession that may well prove a prize to be fought over.

But for now, his reign is unchallenged. In the remote farming district of Charbalak, an hour's drive over rutted roads from Mazar, a security guard in the ragged bazaar named Mohammed Alem didn't hesitate when asked who was in charge there: Local elders? The police? Western troops? The Afghan army?

"The governor," he said flatly.

laura.king@latimes.com

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