From a plush chair, behind a hand-carved desk crowded with custom china and a tissue box made entirely of gold, Atta Mohammad Noor rules his province with an iron fist.
In the five years since the former warlord was crowned provincial governor of Balkh, he's defied every odd: He's eradicated poppy cultivation and driven out the Taliban. He's sowed security that's fuelled stunning economic growth.
Under his forbidding watch, Balkh has become a model of peace and prosperity for the rest of Afghanistan. Now, Mr. Noor has a modest proposal for Canada: “Your country is spending billions of dollars in Kandahar, but you are also losing lives. ... The Taliban are killing your sons, burning your schools and your clinics,” he points out, seated beneath a gild-framed oil painting of Hamid Karzai, his political rival.
“If you spent money in my province, where there is safety and security, we can deliver results,” he promises, with a wave of his hand and flash of his diamond-studded watch.
When Mr. Noor speaks, people tend to listen. Three aides seated on the sidelines diligently take notes of our interview. Outside, a team of his personal bodyguards stands sentry, more powerful than the local police or national army.
Holding court in his office, Mr. Noor, who refers to himself as a full-rank general, appears immensely confident, immensely pleased.
Not long ago, the international community shunned the former mujahedeen commander, viewing his violent past with disdain. He was seen as vestige of Afghanistan's warlord culture, an obstacle to the country's development.
Now, with Mr. Karzai perilously weak, the West is poised to reach out to local Afghan leaders such as Mr. Noor in an effort to bypass the corruption and incompetence of the central government.
In provinces such as Balkh, such a move would further entrench the warlords and rekindle ethnic tensions, but some analysts say the trade-off would be worth it.
As frustration mounts with Mr. Karzai's government and the West seeks strong partners, Mr. Noor is an obvious candidate.
An ethnic Tajik, he was a high-school teacher before he took up arms.
He helped raise an army against the Soviets, fought mercilessly in the civil war, and, ultimately, helped oust the Taliban from power.
He makes no apology for his past. “I'm not saying I'm perfect,” he says, with a bored sigh.
“Imagine if somebody invaded your country and your shopkeepers are obliged to fight, but they don't know how to pull a trigger,” he says. “What are you going to do?”
Today, he wears designer suits. His authority is no longer solely derived from by the barrel of a gun. He also holds substantial interests in real-estate and transportation across Afghanistan's strategic north, home to a vital new NATO supply line.
Mr. Noor has plenty of ideas for how the West might win his support, saying he is ready to forgive “years of neglect.”
“The world community should have two policies: one in the stable provinces; and one in the insecure provinces,” he says.
“Unfortunately right now, they are playing a double role. In those areas where there is fighting, drugs and killings, there are also many projects. But here, in Balkh province, it is very secure, yet the people feel they are being punished with no projects.”
Canada, he believes, should lead the way, “Canada is losing its sons in Kandahar, but the world does nothing. They should also pay attention to other provinces, like Balkh,” he says.
“Look around,” he says with pride. “Instead of calling me a warlord, they should call me a hero.”
The bustling provincial capital of Mazar-I-Sharif has transformed itself into one of the most stable and prosperous in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban, its population has doubled, topping one million people.
New housing developments and hotels are being built. Banks, telecom and transportation companies have rushed to set up shop.
Yet Mazar, and the province of Balkh, have received minimal international aid, compared with other provinces. Prominent businessmen banded together to build the city's elaborate traffic circles adorned with soaring bronze statues and neon lights.
The vast majority of Afghans here credit Mr. Noor for their city's success. They view him with equal measures of fear and respect.
“If Atta left for even one hour, the whole city would be looted,” says Hajji Mohammed, an elderly shopkeeper who sells traditional emerald green chapan coats in the city's bazaar.
“I am happy. We can work day and night and there is no problem. It's not like Kabul,” says another man, who drives an ancient taxi through the city's traffic-choked streets.
General Sardar Mohammad Sultani, the local police chief, says Mr. Noor – not him – deserves credit for keeping the peace.
“Nobody can deny whatever [Mr. Noor] says. It's the law. ... The governor has every department under his order. Whoever tries to disobey will be punished,” Gen. Sultani says.
Mr. Noor's appointment by Mr. Karzai in 2004 was part of a complicated calculation on the President's part to appease former warlords to consolidate his power.
Many, like Mr. Noor, agreed to lay down their arms, and forced their followers to do the same.
But in recent years, he has emerged as one of Mr. Karzai's fiercest critics. During the last presidential election, Mr. Noor backed Abdullah Abdullah, Mr. Karzai's chief rival. Campaign posters featuring the faces of both men are still plastered all over the city.
However, Mr. Karzai's presidential victory has fuelled speculation that Mr. Noor might soon be removed from his post, a move that would prove deeply unpopular in Balkh and could trigger a larger conflict along ethnic lines.
Northern Afghanistan is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks – whose loyalty to Mr. Noor runs deep – and backed by armed force if necessary.
Mr. Noor has become increasingly critical of Mr. Karzai.
Last week's brazen strike by Taliban insurgents on the presidential palace highlighted Mr. Karzai's weakness, the governor says.
“They shouldn't have waited until the enemy attacked their buildings.
They should have had a plan. Instead, bullets arrived to the presidential palace wall. How can we be proud?” Mr. Noor says.
Any attempt by Mr. Karzai to replace him is bound to backfire, observers say.
“The government can't find better than Atta,” says Sayeed Mohammad Tahir Roshanzada, who heads the provincial Chamber Of Commerce, which boasts several hundred members.
“He himself is a businessman,” Mr. Roshanzada points out. “If his stomach is full and his pockets are full of money, he doesn't need to go and get money from other people,” he reasons.
Opposition to Mr. Noor's iron clad control exists, but is muted.
Zainab, a senior government official in the Education Ministry, would like to see Mr. Noor ousted.
She visited the governor's office one day last week to complain about an three-centimetre-thick file folder full of fraudulent 12th-grade diplomas, signed by Mr. Noor.
However, she agreed to be interviewed in a whisper, and did not want her last name published for fear of retribution.
“He is a millionaire. Where did he get that money?” Zainab asks. “He doesn't obey the rules, but because he is a warlord, nobody will oppose him.”
Even if someone does, Mr. Noor has no intention of going anywhere. He has just signed off on a new five-year plan for his province, which he plans to execute with or without outside help.
“There are still some goals I would like to finish,” he says.