A Scholar’s Inside View of Afghanistan’s Warlords

Feb. 7, 2014Bookmark and Share

Mukhopadhyay with former mujahideen commanders and others in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in 2008.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay was a 24-year-old graduate student interested in the role of warlords in developing nations when she first went to Afghanistan in 2004, working for the Aga Khan Development Network in Baharak, a small mountain town near the border with Pakistan, China and Tajikistan.

“It was so remote and so beautiful,” she recalls. It had been a center of mujahideen activity and poppy production with no paved roads and only satellite telephone communication with the rest of the world. She heard gunfire at night and left earlier than planned after a bomb exploded in front of the office of a nearby British nongovernmental organization.

Even so, she was fascinated. Afghanistan was where she wanted to do her research. She has been back five times since, most recently early last year, and plans to return in March. She has conducted more than 200 interviews, including with warlords, provincial governors and council members, and others. “I was listening, watching, seeing how relationships develop,” she says. “I was always treated with respect, even appreciation for seeking them out in order to better understand Afghan politics.”

"I wouldn't have done this research unaccompanied," she says. "You have to be really careful."

Now an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, her first book, Warlords, Strongman Governors and the State in Afghanistan, will be published by Cambridge University Press in March. She joined the Columbia faculty in July 2012 with a Ph.D. from Tufts and after a post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton.

In an interview in her SIPA office, she recalls several close calls while doing her research. In 2012 in Jalalabad near the Pakistani border, a car bomb exploded at the gate to a NATO base just when she would have arrived had her meeting not been postponed for an hour. Nine Afghans were killed. She was in Kabul in 2009 when a suicide bombing at the Indian embassy claimed 17 lives, and she has dined at the Kabul restaurant that was attacked in mid-January, killing 21, including three Americans. “I could have been in that restaurant had I been in Kabul,” she says.

She trusts Afghan friends to tell her where she should not go and travels with male translators who understand her work and help her navigate through the war-torn country. "I wouldn't have done this research unaccompanied," she says. "You have to be really careful."

When in Afghanistan, she covered her head but not her face. In many places she did not see another woman's face in public. But as a foreign woman, she had access to both men and women and has met the wives and daughters of some of the men she has interviewed.

The men always spoke to her directly, she says, with one exception, when she took her visiting husband along on an interview. The government official seemed to address his comments only to him. "I said, 'We're not going to do that again,'" she recalls with a smile.

Her book focuses on two provincial governors, Atta Mohammad Noor and Gul Agha Sherzai, who, she writes, demonstrate that a strong warlord who faced local competition could make the transition from "strongman to strongman governor." Relationships with warlords give the central government some control over remote areas, while the warlords, especially those appointed provincial governors, benefit economically and politically from their connections to the state.

Atta Muhammad Noor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gul Agha Sherzai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"I'm not an apologist for warlordism. My work is value neutral," Mukhopadhyay says. "They are not good or bad, they're there. I wanted to know how they interact with each other, with the state and with other states."

Being of Indian descent was an advantage, she says, because the culture, food and music of Afghanistan are similar to India's. The daughter of a physics professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Mukhopadhyay was raised in upstate New York but visited India frequently. Before her first trip to Afghanistan her grandparents took her shopping for appropriate clothing–oversized pants and dark head coverings.

Although the current situation in Afghanistan is unstable, Mukhopadhyay says she is optimistic. "Of the new generation of Afghan elites, the 20-somethings and 30-somethings in Kabul and provincial big cities, many have studied abroad," she says. "They have skills–how to run a business, be a lawyer, create a political party. The generation of women who weren't allowed to go to school under the Taliban are catching up and learning to articulate their ambitions in a very powerful way. These are the people who will be governing, but it's going to take awhile."

It won't be easy, she adds. "All of the good intentions, the desires of the Afghan people, human rights groups and others for something better, doesn't make a democracy appear in 10 years."

—By Georgette Jasen

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