February 5, 2020

Dipali Mukhopadhyay’s influential scholarship on state formation and rebel governance in Afghanistan and Syria has been realized through often-dangerous fieldwork in conflict zones. Her pursuit of that knowledge, which can take her far outside the ivory tower, has been recognized through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation, the Eisenhower Institute, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the U.S. Institute of Peace, Harvard Law School, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Education.

A former postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, Mukhopadhyay is a faculty affiliate at SIPA’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and teaches classes on international security, including Conceptual Foundations of International Politics. She is the author of two books: Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and, with Kimberly Howe, Good Rebel Governance: Revolutionary Politics and Western Intervention in Syria (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the focus of your research?

I focus on the relationships between political violence, state building, and governance during and after war. I’m interested in countries that we tend to think about as having weak states or failing states or fragile states and looking for the kinds of politics that keep those states together.

Your research then entails your actually being in the field in some of these areas. Can you talk about your experience?

I’m doing qualitative fieldwork for the most part. I’ve been working for the first part of my career primarily on and in Afghanistan. I started traveling to Afghanistan in 2004 and conducted my research for my doctoral dissertation there a few years later. I have been traveling back there ever since. I’ve spent a good amount of time in the capital, Kabul, but I am also very interested in political dynamics that bring the periphery, as we call it—sort of the provinces, towns, and cities that are on the edges of the country—bring them into relationship with the capital, with the center. So I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in two major cities in the northern and eastern parts of the country.

It’s essential to your research to be on the ground in those places, but it also can be dangerous in some cases. How do you balance that?

Doing fieldwork in war zones or conflict zones is challenging, and it’s also very exciting. It’s challenging because you are dealing with questions of your own security on a day-to-day basis. But part of what is difficult about it is, the more comfortable that I have become in the countries that I study—in particular, Afghanistan; I have also done work on the Turkey-Syria border—I’ve built relationships with people that I trust to help take care of me, and helped me make the right decisions. But more generally, the environment for researchers, for journalists, for aid workers in conflict zones empirically has become much more dangerous and much more difficult terrain to traverse. So I’m constantly weighing the risks with the benefits. And in general, I have found myself drawn back time and again, and have decided that understanding these countries and their politics on their own terms with people whom I find incredibly interesting and inspiring, that it’s worth the risk.

And that gives you a different perspective than someone in an ivory tower, just writing this from an academic sense?

Yes. A lot of academia and social science now, because of methodological and technological advances, is done about faraway places from the U.S., in universities, in very exciting ways, in what we might call the ivory tower. For me, that work is really interesting and really valuable, but it remains very important to stay connected to the truths of the places that we’re actually studying.

In my case, that has meant building relationships with Afghans and Syrians and really giving them the opportunity to articulate their own politics in their own words and on their own terms. There’s no way to do that except to travel to those places.

What is your outlook for Afghanistan in terms governance and policy?

I have a complicated set of views on the future of Afghan politics and the future of the country. In the short term, I’m very concerned. I’ve seen the experiences of my own colleagues and friends and people with whom I have built relationships over now almost 15 years, and the kinds of insecurity that they face. And the challenges that they face are getting more and more acute with every day.

On the other hand, in the medium-to-long term, I’m incredibly optimistic about the country. Partly that’s because the kind of academic point of view that I take is one of a longer term. And so I recognize that there are ups and downs in the ways in which states build and rebuild themselves across history; there always have been. And I think Afghanistan is going through that growth process right now, and it’s a painful one.

But I also think I’ve seen incredible progress and, in particular, a kind of resilience and commitment on the part of the new sort of young generation of Afghans to take all of the opportunities that they have been given since 2001 and invest them back into their country. And that makes me ultimately very optimistic.

Do you have a similarly optimistic view about Syria?

Studying Syria has been the most diffi - cult intellectual experience of my career, in large part because it’s very hard to fi nd hope and optimism in Syrian politics. I’m working on a book right now with Kimberly Howe at Tufts University. She and I have been studying the politics of the Syrian opposition. And we’re deeply inspired by the kinds of struggles that ordinary Syrians have experienced and the kinds of commitments that they’ve made to a different kind of politics. And we’re committed in this book to telling that story.

But it’s impossible to look at Syria today and not feel a profound amount of despair about what the country has been through, and a recognition that we’re probably not even close to seeing the end of that suffering. And so that’s a very difficult truth to grapple with but it’s a very important one, because it reveals to us so much about the limits of international relations and international law. It forces us to think much more creatively and with a lot more innovation about how we can do international relations better. And that’s a very important task for us, especially as students of global affairs at Columbia.

How do you take your experience from your scholarship and your field research and share that with the students in your classroom?

Teaching for me has been entirely integrated into my approach to scholarship. I think that’s one of the privileges of teaching such great students like the ones that we have at SIPA. What I do in the classroom is to bring my own experiences—from field research, from things that I’m writing, from things that I’ve read—and create conversations in the classroom with students that first allow them to take their own experiences, their preconceptions of what they’ve learned elsewhere, and test them and debate them and engage with them critically. But then what I also do is ask them for their feedback on my own work, on my own thinking.

What I have found with SIPA students is that they are incredibly willing to take intellectual risks in the classroom and to think far outside the box. And the more that you challenge them, the more they rise to that occasion. And so it’s always been an experience of conversation for me in the classroom with my students. In many cases, that conversation continues long after they finish a course with me. They go on to write more, they publish, they bring that work back to me, and they carry those conversations forward in the work that they do.

Professionally, they stay in touch with me. I’ve actually continued to work with some of my students as they’ve gone back to the field sites where I did my own research, and they themselves have become experts and I draw on their expertise myself. So it’s always a process of dialogue, and a very challenging and interesting one at that. And that’s why, for me, I don’t see a line really between my work as a scholar and my work as a teacher.

Do you think that the research you do impacts policy and impacts peoples’ lives?

I think it’s always a very important and difficult question for a scholar to understand what her impact really is. For me, it was very important from the very beginning of my career to be engaged with people who are actually making policy.

So I spent parts of my early career in the U.S. Department of Defense, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and engaging with military officers and enlisted soldiers before they deployed to various theaters of conflict, because I really wanted to make sure that the work I was doing was speaking to the kinds of questions and issues that they faced.

Part of my role as a scholar is to ask difficult questions and to be comfortable with the fact that there may not be easy answers. And that’s something that makes it challenging to engage with policymakers who have to make decisions right now. But my experience has been that aid workers and soldiers and diplomats are actually very interested in having these harder conversations.

I see my work as an opportunity to give them the time and space to reflect in ways that they don’t get to do every day and to come back to me and have those conversations, and that’s why I write opinion editorial pieces. That’s why I engage in discussions on a regular basis in Washington with civilians and military folks involved in policymaking. And that’s, for me, the biggest advantage of being at SIPA, because we are taken seriously by policymakers and we take policymakers seriously. That allows for really fruitful, ongoing dialogue. It’s not about immediate solutions right now. It’s a much longer, deeper conversation, and it’s one I really value.

What makes you hopeful?

This is a time when I think it’s easy to get really nervous about the state of our politics, about the state of the world more generally, and in the places that I study, there’s a lot of bad news. What makes me incredibly hopeful—and the reason why I am still committed to being an academic and being a teacher—is what I learn from and experience with my students, in large part because I think they are unafraid of asking the really difficult questions. And that is something that is hard to find today.

I think a lot of people are comfortable putting out easy answers, and a lot of those answers are simplistic, they’re not necessarily based on empirical facts, and they’re often really divisive in their implications. And what is extraordinary about being at Columbia and being at SIPA is that we have constructed a community in which people who are from very different backgrounds and very different points of view are actively and consciously engaging one another in constructive debate about how to make the world a better place.

That is not about being naive or overly optimistic. It is about being really honest about the profound challenges that we face domestically and abroad. And what gives me hope is that every year, that conversation gets better here. And I think that the better that conversation is here, the better our graduates will be prepared to go into the world and in small but significant ways actually make it better. And that, for me, fills me with hope, because I think there are enormous challenges but there is also an incredible number of young people who are truly committed to tackling them. And as long as we’re all trying, then our hope remains justified.

Brett Essler