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KABUL, Afghanistan -- A second governor of a northern Afghan province defied an order by the U.S.-backed central government to step down Sunday, deepening a political schism between President Ashraf Ghani and regional leaders.

The defiant governors and the Afghan president all oppose the Taliban, but their infighting has added complications for the United States as it struggles to make headway against the insurgents, even as President Donald Trump has stepped up a bombing campaign against them.

A shift in the U.S. strategy, toward more bombing and greater pressure on Pakistan, was announced over the summer. But so far, it has done nothing to roll back areas under Taliban control, a report issued Friday by the Office of Inspector General at the Defense Department showed.

Seventeen years into the war, the Kabul government controls 18 percent of the country's districts and has influence over an additional 38 percent, the report says.

The political infighting in the government-controlled area is posing another challenge. In December, Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province on the border with Uzbekistan, refused to step down when Ghani fired him.

Noor had antagonized the U.S. military by stopping truck shipments of fuel intended for U.S.-led international forces traveling through the region.

Noor, a former mujahedeen commander turned businessman who has profited from trade with Central Asian states, among other things, said the president had reneged on an agreement to offer more government seats to members of his political party, Jamiat-e-Islami, in exchange for stepping down.

Talks to ease him out have stalled, and Noor has announced that his supporters are planning protests around the country, including in Kabul, the capital, this month.

The political dispute within the Washington-backed government deepened Sunday when another governor and ally of Noor in the north, Abdul Karim Khadam, refused an order from Ghani that he resign as governor of Samangan province.

"The government's decision is unjust and unfair," Khadam said in a telephone interview, adding that it goes against a power-sharing agreement reached last spring between the Jamiat-e-Islami party and the president.

Khadam took pains to emphasize that his refusal to obey the order did not amount to an armed rebellion. "Our opposition to the government does not mean we are rebelling," he said.

Still, the growing standoff spells trouble for the Kabul government. Noor's media office said in a statement that he supported the defiance of another governor and criticized the president.

"Ghani's recent moves are alarming, and we hope he soon wakes up to the realities on the ground, or else he is taking the country to the edge of collapse," it said.

In defying the central government, Noor has aligned himself with ethnic minorities in the north, including Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who went into exile in Turkey to avoid possible prosecution over accusations he had ordered his bodyguards to detain and rape a political rival. Despite the allegations, Dostum retains the title of vice president.

Ghani appointed as the new leader of Samangan an associate of a one-time insurgent leader and Taliban ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who reconciled with the government last year. Officials in Hekmatyar's party have accused Noor of receiving backing from Russia, which they say is trying to carve out an area of influence in northern Afghanistan.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, issued a statement supportive of Noor, an ethnic Tajik, saying the central government in Kabul should refrain from "allowing the polarization of Afghan society along ethnic lines, and from violating the rights of national minorities."

Khadam, the governor who rejected Ghani's order to step down Sunday, denied any foreign backing for the acts of defiance in the north.

"We will not let anyone interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan," he said.

A Section on 02/19/2018

Print Headline: Second Afghan governor defies order to resign

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