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Atta Muhammad Noor, Afghan Governor, Criticizes U.S. Exit Plan

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Atta Muhammad Noor, who many consider to be the strongest governor in Afghanistan, has been critical of a U.S.-supported plan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Atta Muhammad Noor, who many consider to be the strongest governor in Afghanistan, has been critical of a U.S.-supported plan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Atta Muhammad Noor, a former Northern Alliance warlord who many consider to be the strongest governor in Afghanistan, is the kind of longstanding ally American officials would love to comfortably count on as they plan their withdrawal from the decade-old war here.

So it may sting a little to hear Noor lash out about the American exit strategy, and especially the U.S.-supported plan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, before a room full of American military officers.

"The current peace process as conducted by our government and by the U.S., with their meetings in Qatar, I don't think it can lead to a good outcome," Noor said last week in a conversation with a small gathering of reporters at his estate in Mazar. The gathering was organized and attended by a half-dozen coalition military officials. "It will be very difficult to sit at the same table with the leaders of the Taliban."

Noor's complaint may not be unexpected -- the idea that ex-Northern Alliance leaders would resist reconciliation talks with their ideological and military arch-enemies, the Taliban, is hardly surprising.

But it also clashes with recent American policy, which has focused on working behind-the-scenes to bring the Taliban back to peace talks. The hope, analysts and officials say, is that if a political balance can be struck between the insurgents and the government of President Hamid Karzai, the U.S. may be able to draw down its military presence by the end of 2014 without precipitating a new round of civil conflict.

If so, the political rebellion of the governors and warlords of the North, many of whom fought side-by-side with American special forces in the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, could be a deeply complicating circumstance for the U.S. exit plan.

"I share the belief with my father that America’s Afghan strategy is shortsighted and probably based on domestic rather than strategic considerations," wrote Abdul Matin Bek, the son of a recently slain Northern tribal leader, who had fought with the Americans against the Taliban, in a January New York Times op-ed that captured the sentiment. "As Afghans, we rarely understand U.S. policy. One day the U.S. military declares the Taliban the enemy, the next day they’re willing to make peace. Does this policy reflect the realities on the ground? Is it a winning strategy?"

Last week, that disaffection emerged in the form of one of the odder sideshows of Afghan politics, when U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who had recently met in Germany with several anti-Karzai ex-Northern Alliance officials, was blocked by the government from entering the country.

American officials in Kabul say that while they are not surprised by the anxieties of the Northern Alliance leaders, they still sense broad agreement with their old allies over the long-term benefit of political negotiations.

"We do agree with leaders like Atta that the dialogue has to include all of the stakeholders," said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

"Our view is that there is not a purely military solution to the insurgency here; part of the solution has to be political. The reconciliation process is much more serious and active now than it was eight months ago, so we are not surprised to be seeing a lot more Northern Alliance leaders being a lot more vocal about it."

Noor, who has a long history of antagonizing Karzai -- although he recently made a dramatic public appearance at the Presidential Palace -- was not among those at the meeting in Germany. But he said he still shares his fellow Northerners' disenchantment about the American-proposed national reconciliation talks.

"I have the same complaints as they do," he said. "What we want is to preserve the achievements of the past ten years -- to keep the rights of women, the freedom of speech, all of these things we've earned. It will very difficult to sit at the same table with the leaders of the Taliban, because from their form of Islam they only know the way of killing and suicide bombing."

He went on, "I want to include the leaders of the Taliban if they can accept all of our achievements over the past ten years. Then we will welcome them. But the current negotiations just seem to be an opportunity for them to empower themselves, and then afterward they can move on to weapons and fighting."

Analysts say that Noor may have other constituencies in mind as well. Fabrizio Foschini, a researcher with the Kabul-based Afghan Analysts Network, says that Noor has recently been toying with the idea of running for president, and can at least be expected to seek the leadership of his local political party.

"As of now he has more to gain by retaining his northern feud and his business there," said Foschini, who added that for practical reasons Noor is unlikely to take his criticisms of the Americans beyond simply rhetoric.

"U.S. support gives him a strong card to play in the run-up to a presidential election: he could decide to play with his candidacy to raise his stakes in a future power-sharing with the new president," Foschini said.

"He's got some divided loyalties, that's for sure," added Lt. Col. David Olson, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) who helped organize the trip to Mazar. "He's looking out for his regional and ethnic interests. But on balance he's someone we feel we can count on. He's a very influential fellow, and he's very vital to the efforts of the government of Afghanistan up here."

A few days after the interview in Mazar, Noor took another populist stance, telling a gathering of northern governors that while he generally supported the preliminary strategic agreement formed between Karzai's government and the U.S., he would reject any permanent American military bases in the country.

"I have a message to the West and the world community," Noor concluded last week. "The Western countries should not think that through Afghanistan they can threaten China, or Central Asia -- they should not have such an idea. If this is the goal of the West, the Afghans will not accept it, they will not tolerate it. Afghans will stand against anyone who seeks to use us in this way."

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