Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani is facing a tough challenge to his authority from one of his own provincial governors, raising new questions about the volatile nation's already fragile political stability.
A stand-off between President Ghani and a powerful provincial governor has cast a dark shadow over Afghan politics over the past several weeks and triggered worries about renewed political instability in the conflict-prone nation.
The showdown started in December when Ghani removed Atta Mohammad Noor (main picture) from his post as governor of northern Balkh province, a job he has held for over 13 years. Noor refused to obey Ghani's order, triggering a direct challenge to the authority of the central government in Kabul.
While Ghani stresses the Afghan constitution gives the president the authority to fire provincial governors, Noor contends that Ghani has no power to remove him from office because of the "vital role he played in the formation of the Afghan National Unity Government."
The origin of the unity government dates back to 2014, when Afghan presidential elections failed to produce a clear winner. In the aftermath, the then US Secretary of State John Kerry had to broker a deal between the two leading candidates, Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah.
The two then agreed to become partners in the new government which they called the National Unity Government (NUG).
Noor - a staunch Abdullah supporter during the 2014 elections - claims he played a major role in the NUG negotiations, stressing therefore that neither the president nor Abdullah could remove him from his post.
Analysts say there is also an ethnic component to the power struggle between Ghani and Noor, although the governor disagrees with this assertion.
Noor is a leader of Jamiat-i Islami, a party mainly supported by Farsi-speaking ethnic Tajiks who have become increasingly resentful of Ghani, a Pashtun, whom they accuse of favoring his own ethnic group, which is mainly based in the south and east.
Two governors for one province
Following Noor's firing, President Ghani appointed Mohammad Daud as Balkh's new governor. But Daud has so far been unable to perform his duties in the province. Instead, he has been forced to set up a temporary office in Kabul, from where he is striving to remotely manage the province's affairs.
It is, though, unclear to what extent local officials in Balkh take orders from the new governor because most of them take part in gatherings in support of Noor. Also present at these gatherings are some local security officials who have personal connections to Noor.
This is alarming, particularly because the government in Kabul has reportedly considered the use of force against Noor in case the stand-off continues.
Noor, on the other hand, has warned that any measure to oust him by force would only cause rifts among Afghan security forces.
"Don't consider using the military force because 70 [or] 80 percent of them would not fight against me. The Afghan security forces would split into different branches. These forces would not fight against their own Noor," he told a gathering of his supporters earlier this month.
The potential involvement in forcefully removing Noor will be a great test for Afghanistan's security forces, said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
"One of the longstanding fears about Afghanistan's security forces is that they could fragment along ethnic or other fault lines," he told DW.
If the situation in Balkh further escalates and Afghan security forces are asked to take action against the same person from whom they have been taking orders for more than a decade, it is very likely that at least some local officials would ignore orders from Kabul and even take up arms against forces loyal to Ghani.
But Kugelman doubts that the army would engage in large-scale infighting because the current situation is a contained crisis limited to a spat between Noor and Ghani.
"It is not a broader crisis that spills over into society as a whole," Kugelman said.
Need for compromise
Since the stand-off began, Noor's supporters nationwide have been pouring into Balkh. He sees this as an indication of the broad support he commands and the people's dissatisfaction with the NUG. Noor told DW that the ongoing crisis was not only due to his removal, but also because Afghans are increasingly dissatisfied with the government.
Noor said his demands are no longer limited to holding the post of Balkh governor.
"We demand reforms, and the fight against corruption and the expansion of the Islamic State in northern Afghanistan, security for our people, fair distribution of resources across Afghanistan, timely elections, the amendment of the Afghan constitution, reforms in the Afghan electoral commission," Noor said.
If his demands were not met, the governor warned, he would take to the streets to hold anti-government rallies. "I have never bowed to those who abuse power. I raise the voice of the people and represent all the Afghan ethnic groups," he said.
But Noor's demands, observers say, often lack specifics. And critics accuse him of hiding behind such wide-ranging demands to retain his position as the governor of Balkh, where he is believed to have created a large network of support and financial resources.
Despite various rounds of talks between the representatives of both sides, no agreement has been reached so far.
While President Ghani needs to prove to other government officials that he calls the shots in Afghanistan, Noor - who sources say is trying to project himself as a potential presidential candidate in the upcoming elections - is trying to prove to his supporters that he can challenge Ghani's authority.
"Clearly, both sides will need to compromise in order to come to an effective solution. The problem is that neither Noor nor the government in Kabul appears inclined to back down," Kugelman said.
The latest political crisis in Afghanistan has been viewed with concern also in Washington and other major capitals across the world.
US President Donald Trump's administration does not want the ongoing rift to destabilize the government in Kabul. Analysts say the US would do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of further escalation.
Last week, US Vice President Mike Pence spoke to Ghani and stressed that the situation in Balkh should be resolved through peaceful measures. "The vice president emphasized his support for the Afghan government to engage with Balkh Governor Atta and conduct a peacefully negotiated transition of leadership," read a White House statement released on January 16.
At a press conference held after the White House issued its statement, US Ambassador to Afghanistan John R. Bass said that the Afghan president could remove or appoint his governors as per the power vested in him by the Afghan constitution.
Unlike the White House statement, which was welcomed by Noor due to its emphasis on negotiations and peaceful transition of power, the ambassador's comment did not go down well with Noor, who reiterated his call for Afghanistan's foreign allies to remain impartial and not intervene in the nation's domestic politics.
"It is our request to our foreign friends not to interfere in our country's domestic and administrative affairs," Noor said.
The US is also concerned that other powerful rivals of Ghani could follow in Noor's footsteps and challenge the central government. Such a scenario would present the long fragile and vulnerable government in Kabul with new daunting challenges at a time when it is already confronting deep rivalries, deteriorating security and worsening economic conditions.
"That is the last thing the government needs as it scrambles to prepare for critical elections later this year," Kugelman said.