Notable is that these allegations have been published by the Afghan Taliban’s media outlets, hinting towards some level of endorsement. Omar bin Laden, the now estranged son of Osama, has echoed these sentiments claiming that both Mullah Omar and Osama were always “happier” with members of their own organizations and that “if there were no more enemies left on earth” they would “fight each other.” As a caveat it is important to note that analysts have suggested an operational convergence between elements of the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda particularly in the wake of their joint operation against the CIA’s Khost base in December 2009. However it is important to note that this convergence has centered around Afghan operations. Having provided support, it is not inconceivable that Pakistani-centric militants are now demanding the same type of cooperation for their domestic operations.
The Haqqanis also appear to be following suit in distancing themselves from al-Qaeda and other ambitious militant groups that have expanded their horizons beyond the Afghan insurgency. Sirajuddin Haqqani has publicly urged a distinction between his group and al-Qaeda, stating in May 2009, “It is a mistake to think that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are pursuing the same aim. al-Qaeda is trying to spread its influence throughout the world. This does not interest us. The Taliban’s aim is to liberate Afghanistan from foreign troops.”
Part of this distancing may stem from the degradation of al-Qaeda’s utility to the Haqqanis as they are pushed increasingly underground by drone strikes as well as the notoriety and attention al-Qaeda militants bring with them. Contact with militants from the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban who fled to North Waziristan in the aftermath of Pakistani Army operations in South Waziristan may also be exacerbating tensions. The presence of these militants has drawn unwelcome attention to the province, creating significant pressure on the Pakistani Army to intervene militarily. In this vein the Haqqanis are likely to have been involved in helping Hafiz Gul Bahadur, another Afghan-focused commander in North Waziristan, persuade TTP militants to withdraw back to South Waziristan. It is uncertain as to whether this constituted an expulsion or not but Bahadur and his shura were known to have been upset at the massive influx of Mehsud militants and their ability to act as spoiler elements for their peace deal with the Pakistani Army.
While the Afghan Taliban may be moving away from al-Qaeda, there is significant evidence to suggest that other Pakistani Taliban groups are moving closer. For al-Qaeda strategic planners this linkup provides an ideal opportunity. Already possessing a defined global jihad ideology and a strong militant brand, the greatest weakness for al-Qaeda has been its operational and logistical degradation in the face of withering drone strikes. ‘Infecting’ or co-opting Pakistani outfits who already have manpower and logistics in place allows al-Qaeda to reconstitute its relevance as an inspirational resource on the jihadi stage. It is thus in its favor that generational shifts have provided a much more receptive audience whose own beliefs are better synced with al-Qaeda’s expanded targeting scope and extreme radicalization.
This growing “lockstep” between al-Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups is seen in the attempted Times Square bombing which marked the TTP’s first tangible international foray in the post-Beitullah period. As Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation notes, even if the TTP did not “operationalize this particular attack, they want all of us to think that they did. That’s a big deal, and it aligns very closely with al-Qaeda’s core priorities.” Punjabi militant outfits have also had fairly extensive links with al-Qaeda dating back a few years. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi shares an extreme distaste for Shias and has often been described as “the eyes, ears and operational arm of al-Qaeda.” The Lashkar-e-Taiba has been accused of close affiliations with al-Qaeda and is believed to be “increasingly placing the West in its sights.” Groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed are also believed to have converged towards al-Qaeda and provided safe houses and limited tactical expertise.
The phenomenon of increased radicalization and militant convergence has not gone unnoticed but it has generally been seen as a positive development, potentially exacerbating tensions within the militant movement and providing an opening for American and Pakistani forces to exploit. However the idea that dissension will lead to overt intra-militant warfare is an optimistic outcome. More likely the result will be an extension of what we have already witnessed, i.e. the slow siphoning off of support and resources towards the new, more radical groups at the expense of older groups as the Afghan Taliban.
Should this transfer of leadership materialize, it will make complicate matters. Negotiation with weaker parties is meaningless from a strategic viewpoint while negotiations with the stronger parties may become near impossible given their ideological intransigence. Convergence also affords a significant expansion of tactical ability as noted by Tariq Pervez, head of Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority who observed that ““ideas, logistics, cash [come] from the Gulf. Arab guys, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, are on hand to provide the chemistry. Veteran Punjabi extremists plot the attacks, while the Pakistani Taliban provides the martyrs.”
Convergence may also profound outcomes on the aftermath of an American withdrawal. Some proponents of withdrawal have pointed to the Soviet experience, noting that militants did not “follow them home”, but should al-Qaeda-inspired groups gain the upper hand and seize the militant leadership mantle, the results could be catastrophic. In that event, we are likely to continue to see attacks on the Pakistani state continue with renewed vigor and the potential that the Afghan vacuum be exploited for the training of militants focused on the international jihad.