A phalanx of bodyguards protects Samiullah Qatra in his office _ with good reason. He got the job as police chief in this northern province after a suicide bomber killed his predecessor just down the street. Qatra narrowly escaped a bomber aiming for him a few weeks back.
Security in northern Afghanistan, once seen as a success story compared with the more troublesome south and east, has fallen apart under increasing attacks that intelligence and government officials say are fueled by a new influx of Central Asian Islamic militants moving in from bases in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The militants have taken control of several villages and merged with local Taliban insurgents to create a deadly new force, said one Afghan intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information on militants' movements is classified.
The growing threat in an area far from the Taliban's southern heartland is worrisome for NATO as it looks to withdraw and hand over the security of Afghan provinces to the national army and police.
The United States, which begins a drawdown of its forces next month, wants to complete its pullout by 2014. The 4,930 German soldiers deployed in northern Afghanistan will begin withdrawing later this year.
The militants belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a radical faction made up of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens and Turks, some with German citizenship. The group, formed two decades ago, originally aimed to set up an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, which neighbors Afghanistan to the north, but later allied itself with al-Qaida and expanded its goal to an Islamic state across Central Asia.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
For years, the north rarely saw suicide bombings _ a contrast to the south, where the majority of NATO and U.S. soldiers are deployed. The north's population is largely made up of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks who opposed the Taliban, whose support base are mostly ethnic Pashtuns.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was largely crushed inside Afghanistan two years ago, and its militants were forced to flee into Pakistan.
But now they are returning to northern Afghanistan, driven from Pakistan's Waziristan tribal regions by U.S. drone strikes, said the intelligence official.
On Tuesday, NATO announced it had captured a senior Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan commander and two of his associates in a nighttime raid a day earlier in Kunduz.
The militants are mostly targeting government officials and security forces.
Last month, a bomber slipped into a compound where Afghan and NATO officials were meeting, killing northern Afghanistan's most senior provincial police official, Gen. Mohammed Daoud, and several German soldiers. The attack also wounded the German NATO commander for the north, Maj. Gen. Markus Kneip.
Attacks on government buildings and security recruitment stations have killed dozens. Bombers killed not only Qatra's predecessor in Kunduz province, but also the police chief of neighboring Takhar province.
"The Uzbeks of the IMU had a big hand in these killings as well as local Taliban, who helped them," said the intelligence official. The ideas and the planning are done by the Uzbeks, he said.
Speaking in his office, Kunduz's police chief, Qatra, said his forces were trying to hunt down 10 suicide bombers said to be looking for targets. Last month, his troops uncovered 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of explosives buried in paint canisters behind Kunduz's airport _ enough material to make dozens of suicide vests or improvised explosive devises capable of tearing through armored vehicles.
On June 19, a day after Qatra spoke to The Associated Press, a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed car next to a German military convoy in Kunduz. The attack killed three Afghan civilians.
This month, Qatra narrowly escaped a suicide attack believed to be targeting him. Qatra was approaching a mosque where a memorial service was being held when guards stopped a suspicious person who detonated his explosives-laden vest, killing three policemen.
The intelligence official said up to 600 members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are based in Pakistan's tribal regions, allied with Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and aided by the deadly Haqqani network.
The drone strikes have caused many to leave North Waziristan for Pakistan's Kurram territory, a major crossing point, said the official, who was previously based in Kurram tracking their movements. The U.S. recently hit targets for the first time in Kurram, an indication that its intelligence is also reporting militant movement in the area.
The IMU militants then cross from Kurram into Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, eventually making their way through the Tagaab Valley, which is currently patrolled by French soldiers. From the Tagaab, it is a direct line into northern Afghanistan's Kunduz, Baghlan and Takhar provinces.
Once there, they blend in with local ethnic Uzbeks, said the intelligence official. The fighters at one point took over three district centers of Kunduz province, but German troops pushed them out and now they are hiding in smaller villages, backed by local Taliban and sheltered by residents in exchange for promises not to attack their area, he said.
Unlike most of the north, Kunduz and neighboring Baghlan province also have significant Pashtun populations. Disgruntled by poverty, unemployment and widespread corruption, many Pashtun youths have thrown outright or tacit support to the Taliban and their IMU partners, said Kunduz Gov. Mohammed Anwar Jigdalik.
"They don't necessarily support the Taliban but they are unhappy with the government," Jigadilik said from inside his heavily fortified residence, protected by at least two steel barriers, barbed wire, blast-absorbing bags and a small army of guards.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan works behind the scenes, he said. A recent protest in Takhar over a civilian killing quickly spun out of control because the IMU was fueling it, he said.
Residents say corrupt police and government officials also help the militants.
Ahmed Fawad, a day laborer in Kunduz, said that earlier this year he saw a suicide bomber cross a police checkpoint, handing the police 50 Afghanis _ the equivalent of a dollar _ to pass through unchecked. Farther down the road, he blew himself up near a contingent of troops.
For many residents, fear of bombers translates into fear of the NATO troops they target.
"We are afraid always now of these suicide bombers. The foreign forces bring them with them," said Fawad. "They should stay off the streets."
Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.