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Afghan Regional Leader Says Decentralization Key To Country's Future

Balkh Province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor
Balkh Province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor
The Taliban may be gaining momentum in northern Afghanistan, but not everywhere. In Balkh Province, Governor Atta Mohammad Noor has provided economic development and stability, making the region a case study for effective governance in Afghanistan. RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel spoke recently with Noor in the regional capital, Mazar-e Sharif.

RFE/RL: There were no security problems when a million people visited Mazar-e Sharif for Norouz celebrations in March. Business in the city is growing, and people here generally say they feel safe. That's different from many parts of northern Afghanistan, including Konduz Province right next door, where the Taliban are resurgent. What makes Balkh Province so comparatively stable?

Governor Atta Mohammad Noor: Of course there can be no governing without mistakes or challenges. Whatever mission or task we'd like to achieve will face obstacles. But we have always tried to have a good working team, effective plans, and I have tried to supervise the work our team has been doing. We've also tried to share security responsibilities with locals and to use the security services in the best possible way. We have always tried to maintain good supervision over the security and intelligence forces, and ultimately close relations with the people. In other words, having a working team, good plan, oversight over tasks, and applying good management with seriousness and determination can lead to success.

RFE/RL: You've been governor of Balkh Province since 2004. During that time, President Hamid Karzai has appointed his own political allies as governors in all provinces except here. Why is that?

Noor: I've never tried to get recommendations to remain in my post, nor have I requested [to remain governor]. But the government leadership has goodwill toward me and confidence in me. The president has backed me despite the fact that I supported [his main rival] Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in [last year's] presidential elections.

The president could have removed me after his reelection because I was going down a different path. But the consent of the people, the grace of God, and the needs of the government are important. The authorities needed to keep me and I remained in their service. But I have not done anything to remain in power. The reason people are happy with us is that we've served them in a transparent way.

'Semi-Federal System'

RFE/RL: Does the president have too much power in Afghanistan? Are the Americans making a mistake trying to help build a strong, centrally controlled state instead of letting regions develop in their own way?

Noor: The government indeed faces challenges. Some neighboring countries have worked to undermine the authorities here. The Taliban, along with elements of Hezb-e Islami [the Islamic party of U.S. critic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar] -- which is outside the government -- have also tried to destabilize the government and achieve their own goals. The authorities haven't been able to exert control over some areas due to these difficulties. There is no powerful integrated political opposition in the country. But with the presence of more than 45 foreign countries and the government's legal rule, it hasn't faced the kind of challenge where officials turn against their own government....

The second point is that we've always said -- of course this is our own personal view -- that we favor decentralizing power, to transfer some of it to the people and give parliament more authority. Our political system should have been made parliamentary [instead of presidential]. That would have decreased the power of individual [rulers] and enabled people in every corner of Afghanistan to see their interests reflected in the government's authority.

RFE/RL: What is your vision for the future of Afghanistan? Is there another country that should serve as a model for relations between the center and its regions?

Noor: The federal system of government is regarded as a good system around the world. Even the most advanced and powerful counties are federal states. We do not reject the federal system. The main reason we opposed it in the past is that in the view of General [Abdul Rashid] Dostum [a powerful leader in northwest Afghanistan], a federal system meant partitioning Afghanistan. His sense was that his flag should be hoisted from the Salang Tunnel [north of Kabul] to the top [of the country].

But my perspective is that a federal system means the rule of the government, a single foreign policy, single currency and single national army. Decentralization should come only after those are established. We could hold a referendum to refer to the opinion of the people. We can still create a semi-federal system that would shift some power to the provinces. That would speed development and create the grounds for sound competition among provinces. There's no reason not to do that. But we don't have an effective cabinet whose ministers could reach out to provinces and districts on development projects and capacity building. That's currently very difficult and takes a long time.

'Shared Responsibility'

RFE/RL: Why is the Talban growing elsewhere in northern Afghanistan, particularly next door in Konduz Province? Is there a danger it will continue to spread and what must be done to stop it?

Noor: The Taliban, under the guidance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), has undoubtedly tried to expand its insurgent activities from the southern provinces toward the big, peaceful cities [of the north]. They've been able to do that because our security and intelligence forces are weak. There's also no plan for effective coordination between NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan government forces. Failed military operations, indiscriminate bombing, unfair detentions, and the killing of civilians have all helped boost the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami. The party's emergence in northern Afghanistan has helped pave the way for the Taliban insurgency to grow.

I believe the way to confront that problem is to share the responsibility for providing security with local people. Locals are probably more effective against insurgents than a thousand foreign forces.

RFE/RL: Is there enough space for independent political parties in your province?

Noor: Balkh Province is one of the provinces in which democracy is exercised better than elsewhere. Political activity, sound competition, media, freedom of expression, and the active participation of women -- voting, becoming members of parliament, working as teachers -- all make Balkh Province the best place for democracy. That's why the many political parties here face no threats. Civil society is also stronger in Balkh than elsewhere in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Much of Afghanistan is a war economy. For example, NATO forces bringing supplies from Uzbekistan help create business in Mazar-e Sharif. But what do you see as the future economic base for your province after Afghanistan stabilizes?

Noor: Unfortunately, the presence of foreigners in Balkh hasn't been good for the economic growth of our people. It hasn't been useful for creating employment or good markets. Most foreign troops stationed here get even their drinking water from Dubai. Their fruits and vegetables come from outside, and they make direct contracts with big foreign companies to provide fuel, which brings no benefit to our people.

What we need is to build infrastructure and factories to produce goods from our raw materials that would create employment for our young people. Our agriculture should be mechanized and dams built for irrigation and power generation. Short-term projects and achievements haven't been and won’t be of any real benefit to our people. We hope that the exploration of our mines and implementation of infrastructure projects will decrease the country's economic problems. Otherwise, the people of Afghanistan will always struggle against poverty.

Governor Noor's comments were translated by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mustafa Sarwar in Prague

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