Allison JACKSON - Afghanistan’s “King in the North” lolls in an armchair under the portrait of President Ashraf Ghani, the man who sacked him last year - and who he may now challenge for the country’s top job.

Atta Mohammad Noor is refusing to give up the governorship of the northern province of Balkh. Instead, he is using the political crisis to show off his strength, turning him into one of Afghanistan’s most famous politicians.

The dispute comes at a bad time for Ghani’s US-backed government, which is facing growing public fury over recent deadly attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in the war-torn country that have laid bare its inability to protect civilians.

“They think I am a big challenge for the 2019 elections,” Noor told AFP in the lavishly furnished office of the fortified governor’s compound that has been his since 2004.

“I am very honest and that’s why people trust me. This is a very big concern for my political rivals. That is why they tried to isolate me, to decrease my popularity among the people, but it went the other way.”

The decision to oust the bearded strongman on December 18 has backfired badly on Ghani, who has been criticised for his poor timing and clumsy handling of the issue.

Instead of weakening a rival ahead of the presidential election, Ghani has thrust the more charismatic Noor onto the national stage where he has been capitalising on his newfound fame.

Meanwhile, the new governor Mohammad Daud has been forced to work in Kabul, while his predecessor continues to sit in his office in the provincial capital Mazar-i-Sharif, hiring and firing district chiefs as if to signal his authority.

In daily back-to-back meetings and televised rallies, Noor has been rubbing shoulders with representatives of various ethnic groups and political parties from across the country.

The gruelling schedule, which Noor’s aides say often lasts until the early hours of the morning, underscores the challenge the former anti-Soviet fighter faces to broaden his appeal in a country where ethnic divisions run deep.

“I’m very happy that I’ve done good things and people love me but these meetings also need a lot of patience,” admitted Noor, who cuts a dash in a black shalwar kameez and matching leather boots.

Fears of violence

For weeks, negotiators for Ghani and Noor’s Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami party have been trying to resolve the conflict which has its roots in the hotly contested 2014 presidential election results.

Ghani, who belongs to the country’s largest Pashtun ethnic group, took the presidency in a US-brokered power-sharing deal with his rival, Jamiat-backed Abdullah Abdullah, who was named chief executive.

Jamiat has accused Ghani of failing to fulfil the terms of the agreement and has submitted demands to the president’s negotiators, including giving parties a bigger representation in parliament, something that would likely benefit the party.

But as the talks drag on there are growing fears the crisis could turn violent, sparking calls from the White House and others for a peaceful resolution. “If Ghani accepts (the demands) then of course we will end the dispute,” said Noor, adding he would be prepared to step down. “If he doesn’t accept then we will... change our current soft behaviour.”

‘Perfect’ governor

In war-torn Afghanistan where security forces are struggling to beat back insurgents, Balkh stands out for its relative peace and prosperity.

Locals told AFP that Noor was the reason for their good fortune - an achievement that may make corruption allegations against him easier to overlook in a country where many politicians are seen as both dishonest and incompetent.

“He has constructed a lot and the security is good,” Abdul Khalil said as he sat beside a wooden trailer stacked with mandarins in Mazar-i-Sharif, where there are few blast walls and security forces in the streets. “Everyone is very happy with him.”

Taxi driver Mohammad Hashem effusively described Noor as the “perfect” governor, as he drove past billboards plastered with Noor’s portrait.

Some question whether the growing support for Noor, said to be one of the richest men in Afghanistan, is genuine or an opportunistic move by people hoping for a slice of his largesse. But even if his popularity is real, many wonder if it would be possible for a non-Pashtun to win the presidency in a country where political loyalties often run along ethnic lines.

“His growing network of anti-Ghani friends across the country contains a lot of strong, proud Pashtuns who would never endorse a non-Pashtun presidential candidate,” a Western official told AFP.

But Noor, who said he would only run for the presidency if Jamiat backed him, is confident Afghan voters would look beyond his Tajik roots.

“The majority of Afghans look at who can serve better, provide services and maintain security,” said Noor. “The people of Afghanistan will vote for that, not for ethnicity.”