Taloqan, Afghanistan - More than a decade ago, the people of the predominately Uzbek province of Takhar in the country's north fiercely resisted the Taliban's desire to impose Sharia on the region.
Indeed, in January 2001, Taloqan, the provincial capital, was the final major Afghan city to fall under Taliban control.
Months later, aerial bombardment by US and NATO forces rid the province of the Taliban, allowing security forces to turn their attention to heart of the insurgency - the Pashtun-dominated south and east.
But if international forces forgot about the Tajik and Uzbek-dominated north, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) - an ethnic Uzbek insurgent group with reported close links to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency - did not.
"For the past three years, the IMU has become stronger in the north," said General Baba Jan, commander of the 303rd Pamir Police Zone.
As US forces withdraw, joint Afghan and coalition raids targeting the IMU are increasing. In the first three months of 2012, the number of operations targeting the IMU nationwide totalled six, half taking place in the country's northeast, according to the Long War Journal, a website tracking such activity. In the January to March period this year, raids doubled, with all but one carried out in northern Afghanistan.
"IMU fighters are the main focus of our special forces operations. They are all over north-eastern Afghanistan," said General Zalmai Wesa, 209th ANA Corps commander in the north. "They train locals in IEDs, suicide attacks and other sophisticated attacks and are behind the assassination of a number of officials and tribal elders.
"They're like a virus, the more they spread, the more they spread the disease."
The growing popularity of the IMU among Uzbeks in the north suggests a striking shift in ideology among a population that previously welcomed the overthrow of the Taliban.
"No-one took the group seriously, because the Taliban are usually active in Pashtun areas. Suddenly, they took up arms. People were like: 'Wow, there's an insurgency emerging.'"
- Afghan official
"What's ironic is after ten years, the kids whose fathers and elder brothers fought bravely to keep the Taliban out of Takhar, are now joining the Taliban and IMU," said an Afghan official speaking on condition of anonymity.
This raises questions about the ability of Afghan forces to contain the highly effective, adaptive and growing IMU in a strategic part of the country: the Tajik border on one end, a major narco-hub and gateway into Central Asia, and Kunduz on the other, a key northern province that houses some of the country's largest al-Qaeda and Taliban havens and training centres.
IMU fighters have a shared history with the Taliban that dates back to the early 1990s, when the group's founders, Tohir Yuldeshev and Juma Namangani, sought refuge in the country after fleeing Uzbek president Islam Karimov's crackdown on armed groups.
The 2001 US-led invasion killed Namangani and drove Yuldeshev into Pakistan's North Waziristan. Tensions flared when Wazir residents accused the Uzbek fighters of secretly killing tribal elders. Taliban leader Mullah Omar relocated the group to South Waziristan under the control of Baitullah Mehsud, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader. It was, however, a move not without restrictions imposed. Trust between the groups diminished after rumours began to swirl that Yuldeshev had close relations with Pakistan's ISI. Amid tensions and increasing drone attacks, killing both Yuldeshev and his predecessor Usman Adil, many fighters headed back to Afghanistan.
Takhar, according to 2009 provincial reports, was in bad shape. The province had one of the highest illiteracy rates in the north, with poverty rates dropping below the national average. Uzbeks were growing frustrated over a lack of representation in the government and inadequate schooling - the majority still relying on Pakistan's free religious education.
Around early 2009, the first signs of a budding insurgency emerged in mosques, said residents. Clerics began preaching an ultra-conservative strain of Islam.
"No one took the group seriously, because the Taliban are usually active in Pashtun areas," said the Afghan official.
"Suddenly, they took up arms. People were like: 'Wow, there's an insurgency emerging.'
"When you are young and uneducated, or educated but no-one in the government gives you a job - and then, on the other hand, you see people who look like you, speaking your language and campaigning against the government, of course you're attracted."
"My uncle sent [my cousin] to study in Pakistan so he could teach children and preach in a mosque. He didn't say to become a suicide attacker."
- Dilshod, Uzbek farmer
Most here blame both the international community and the Afghan government.
"This is the weakness of the government that al-Qaeda came here. The international community and Afghan government promised to help us build roads and schools, but everything goes to other provinces," said Haji Jamshid, a provincial council representative. "Not even two percent of President Karzai's administration is Uzbek. How can he say we're unified?"
Nearly all official posts, police, intelligence and civil servant positions in the area are held by Tajiks, said observers.
And there is another problem. People here still rely on Pakistan's madrassas, or religious schools, to educate their youth.
Six months ago, Uzbek farmer Dilshod* received a phone call. His cousin, freshly returned from studying in a Pakistani madrassa, had been arrested outside a mosque in downtown Taloqan, holding a jug of explosives - minutes, possibly seconds, before detonating.
"My uncle sent him to study in Pakistan so he could teach children and preach in a mosque," said Dilshod. "He didn't say to become a suicide attacker."
Dilshod's cousin, now 28, is serving out his sentence in Kabul's Pol-e-Charkhi prison.
"My uncle died a month ago because he was so sad about his son's situation," he told Al Jazeera
Reversing the insurgency
In an attempt to reverse the sprawling insurgency, military operations began in the autumn of 2011. "With the help of special forces, we cleaned three districts of insurgents," said the provincial council's Jamshid. "After, the most dangerous Taliban and al-Qaeda came to our area."
Also in 2011, General Daud Daud, commander of the 303rd Pamir Zone of the north, and Abdul Mutalib Bek, a powerful leader, were both killed in attacks bearing the hallmarks of the IMU: suicide bombers targeting officials at large, usually outdoor, gatherings.
The International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, declined to comment on questions regarding the IMU, saying only: "At the tactical level, the insurgency [comprising the IMU, Taliban and al-Qaeda] is considered a single entity."
The response seemingly reflects the changing face of an adaptive insurgency in the north. One in which a growing number of commanders and fighters have ties to a variety of armed groups - many operating in one area for one group, while simultaneously coordinating attacks for another.
"Today, the IMU doesn't have a front," said Mullah Omar, a district governor. "They have presence in smaller groups to avoid special forces."
Uktam*, the son of an Uzbek farmer, is also a university student. Clean-shaven and dressed in a freshly pressed salwar kameez, he is part of this dispersed front Governor Omar speaks of.
"About six or seven of us meet once a week. Sometimes top commanders attend, sometimes the meetings are held for the local community. All the meetings are different; we change times, though it's usually late at night, and places. It's very secretive because NDS [the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan's intelligence agency] is constantly searching for us."
Uktam, however, is not a fighter. He prefers "talking logically" with people, similar to campaigning, he said - telling people why non-Muslims are in the country.
Takhar and Kunduz residents told Al Jazeera that the increase in military operations targeting the group had brought relative stability to the north. Yet last month in Kunduz, a suicide bomber targeting officials at a buzkashi match killed eight. The attack, said officials and experts, was IMU-linked.
"The IMU have started spreading their message," said journalist Najibullah Mutahari. "They say: 'We will take over the government when the foreign forces leave in 2014.'"
*Some names in this report have been changed to protect individuals' identity
Follow Bethany Matta on Twitter: @BethanyMatta
Source: Al Jazeera