There's been a lot of talk of late, led by the memoir of David Rohde and a compelling piece by Peter Bergen, of the "merger" of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I've got no real insight into that important question. But I wanted to draw attention to a fascinating post over at Jihadica by Vahid Brown, a Research Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point who knows a lot about such things. Brown has noticed a growing tension between the "universalists" of al-Qaeda and the "nationalist" of the Taliban on the jihadist online forums:
Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban and al-Qa’ida’s senior leaders have been issuing some very mixed messages of late, and the online jihadi community is in an uproar, with some calling these developments “the beginning of the end of relations” between the two movements. Beginning with a statement from Mullah Omar in September, the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership has been emphasizing the “nationalist” character of their movement, and has sent several communications to Afghanistan’s neighbors expressing an intent to establish positive international relations.
In what are increasingly being viewed by the forums as direct rejoinders to these sentiments, recent messages from al-Qa’ida have pointedly rejected the “national” model of revolutionary Islamism and reiterated calls for jihad against Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan and China. However interpreted, these conflicting signals raise serious questions about the notion of an al-Qa’ida-Taliban merger.
[O]ne thing is clear: the recent shift in the Quetta Shura’s strategic communications is not to al-Qa’ida’s liking, and it is raising serious concerns among the broader Salafi jihadi movement about the religio-political legitimacy of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership.
How representative are these forums in the Afghan case? I don't know. But Brown's post reminds me of the online furor over the Islamic State of Iraq which foreshadowed the dramatic split in the Iraqi insurgency in which key insurgency factions flipped to the U.S. side and formed the backbone of the Awakenings/ Sons of Iraq. Back then, in the fall of 2006 through early 2007 we saw growing discord on the forums between al-Qaeda in Iraq's umbrella group the Islamic State of Iraq and key insurgency factions. Some of the discord focused on local complaints (ISI attacks on moderate imams), but a lot focused on this tension between the nationalist goals of the Iraqi insurgency factions (which mainly wanted to drive American forces out of Iraq) and the universalist goals of AQI (which mainly wanted to use Iraq as the base for global jihad).
Those tensions on the forums proved to be a crucial leading indicator of real splits on the ground which energized the "Awakenings" movement. Like I said, I have no idea whether a similar eruption of such arguments on the forums today will have the same significance. I'm generally leery of comparisons from Iraq to Afghanistan, and in particular the relationship between the forums and the factions may well be different in this context. But Brown's post should be food for thought.