MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan — A massive portrait of a middle-aged man towers over the Ferris wheel and giant mushrooms at an amusement park here. At night, the image is bathed in an ethereal light, visible from a quarter-mile away.
His admirers call him “Ustad,” or “Teacher.” His critics call him the King.
For more than a decade, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province, has controlled this northern region with an iron hand, imbued with the authority of the freedom fighter he was and the ultra-rich businessman he has become. Guns, militias and guile, as well as his ability to provide security, have made him one of the country’s most formidable strongmen.
To many war-weary Afghans, former warlords such as Noor — who are accused of human rights abuses yet rule with impunity — have to be marginalized for the nation to move into a new era. To their supporters, these former warlords remain a bulwark against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, possibly, the Islamic State, more vital than ever as the U.S. military mission edges to a close.
“If Ustad Atta is ever replaced as governor, there will be chaos here, and it will spread to other provinces,” declared Haji Abdul Wahab, a close friend who manages the park, which Noor built. “He’s got a special place in the hearts of Afghan people.”