TIME: Welcome to al-Qaeda Town


On a remote stretch of Afghanistan's border with Pakistan sits a thriving bazaar crammed with grimy shops and simple houses. Locals know it as Angurada, but it might as well be called al-Qaeda Town. In an audacious show of force by an organization that is supposed to be on the run, al-Qaeda, according to U.S. and Afghan officials, has claimed the hamlet as its own and is using the redoubt as a base for attacks on U.S. forces. Strangest of all, this is happening in Afghanistan proper, where the U.S. military has, in theory, freedom of action to move against al-Qaeda.

"This is al-Qaeda's strategic place now," says an Afghan intelligence officer, referring to Angurada. "From here they are attacking other places." American military officers operating in the area agree. "What you can see is that it's a meeting place and transition point for logistics, information and people," says paratroop intelligence officer Captain Patrick Willis.

The odd situation in Angurada has its roots in the Taliban period. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, one of its regional leaders, for reasons unclear, allowed Pakistan's Frontier Corps, a poorly paid militia that operates in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, to set up a checkpoint across the border. Angurada stands on the Afghan side of the international border, but it falls on the Pakistani side of a boundary that Pakistanis tend to prefer: the Durand Line, which in 1893 separated Afghanistan from what was then part of British India.

Three months ago, the Frontier Corps went further, presumably on behalf of al-Qaeda. Its troops moved to positions on a ridge sloping over the bazaar and dug eight sandbagged bunkers, fitting each with an artillery piece and two antiaircraft guns. Angurada was sealed off. Though woefully underfunded, the Frontier Corps in this case was able to distribute thousands of dollars to quell any local opposition. "Some people wanted to rise up against the militia, but the tribal elders who wanted to resist were paid off to stay quiet and accept it. Some elders and groups got as much as 100,000 rupees [$1,700], and the rest of us got either 5,000 rupees [$83] or 10,000 rupees [$170]," Shah Hakim Mizhdua, a local resident, told TIME before another man interrupted, barking, "Shut up! I haven't been paid yet." Told of the spending spree, Afghan intelligence officials had no doubt where the cash came from. "While we're broke, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are flush," says an intelligence officer in Afghanistan's Paktika province, which includes Angurada. Officials in Islamabad say the Frontier Corps has orders to grab any terrorist suspects but hasn't seen any.

On the other side of the ridge, U.S. special forces have established a firebase in the neighboring village of Shkin. For these men, the Angurada bazaar, only a few miles away, is treacherous. When they enter it, they come under fire. The firebase has been repeatedly rocketed. Laments Afghan Interior Ministry intelligence chief Niamatullah Jalili: "Al-Qaeda is using this town, and there's nothing we can do." U.S. forces are also frustrated at their inability to strike at the al-Qaeda operatives they know are inside. Says Colonel Roger King, spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan: "It's not like they're wearing uniforms and staying at a base that we can watch."

--By Michael Ware/Angurada, with reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington