Something I am hearing a lot these days is that the Taliban may be moving away from al-Qaida. This is coinciding with a growing U.S. interest in partly fighting, partly negotiating a way out of Afghanistan with Max Leverage (meet Max Leverage: a plan, not a person).
Of course this is optimistic, and of course this is not so simple. This brief post here is a look at some of the complications one should probably be mindful of, in assessing the validity of the starting assertion.
I. The Taliban and al-Qaida have physically separated to a degree, post-2001. One went mostly to Baluchistan, the other to areas in the FATA and to Pakistan's major cities rather. So, in a sense, they cannot be moving away from one another...
II. Regarding whether they are moving away from one another in a strategic sense, there are various possible objections to consider. The first one is conceptual. Those who talk about a need to focus on the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban sometimes seem to ignore that three more distinct sets of actors need to be taken into account (and of course none of these sets represent unitary actors): namely, the Pakistani Taliban and likeminded factions + other Pakistani Pashtun factions in the tribal areas that don't openly challenge the Pakistani state and are generally inclined to wage cross-border jihad + the Kashmiri groups. So there you have five sets of non-state actors instead of two unitary non-state actors. It changes the picture a little, doesn't it?
Now, based on this, there are a few possible obstacles in the way of a clean break between the Taliban and al-Qaida, as well as in the way of critical divergence between all of these different actors. I am trying to conceptualise these as clearly as possible.
1. Similar worldview. Without going into an exotic discussion of fine differences in Deobandi and Wahhabi doctrines, without going into an analysis of the latest publications out on the worldwide web, there is a similarity of attitudes towards the West, the idea of the West, and towards those regarded as victims of the West. Or America.
2. Family ties. Once there are intermarriages and other family ties between any of these groups, and you are in one of these groups, I guess you cannot just call it a new day and ignore some of the people who are connected to you and your partners in this way.
3. Covert funding. Al-Qaida is, probably even today, a distributor of resources as well, and that is something that can give them potency. They are useful to those willing to fund likeminded organisations in a covert way, and they are able to retain some support even from pressured partners because of this.
4. Intergroup synergies. Once we claim that all the above groups are autonomous to a degree (which is a premise behind the statement this post is dealing with), they have means/assets at their disposal, and thus, to a degree, they are capable of having quasi-policies, for example towards each other. This gives them, or some of them, room to give covert assistance to each other, or to some of the members of the other groups, even if the whole world tries to pressure (and incentivise) them against this.
I am not trying to exclude the possibility of anything. The world changes all the time. But I am really interested to hear solid answers to these suggestions from those who at times appear as wishful thinkers to me, people who want to believe what they say.