Lord of War, Prince of Peace: Strongman Governors in Post-2001 Afghanistan

Event Date: 
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Event Time: 
12:00 p.m.
Location: 
012 Bendheim Hall

Dipaly Mukhopadhyay, a Postdoctoral Fellow at LISD, discussed her recently defended doctoral dissertation, "Lord of War, Prince of Peace: Strongman Governors in Post-2001 Afghanistan," at an LISD lunch seminar on Thursday, March 3 at 12:00 in 012 Bendheim Hall. Mukhopadhyay's research tackles the following paradox: in the Afghan central government's struggle to assert control over the periphery, some of its most formidable competitors, warlord-commanders, have actually served as its most valuable partners in the project of governance. While foundational texts on the process of state formation reflect an understanding of the modern state as a triumph of formal institutions over informal power holders, this inquiry arrives at a different conclusion: the Afghan case suggests that the very success of some states may depend on relationships with, rather than a triumph over, informal power holders.

Based on nearly 200 interviews conducted in Kabul and rural Afghanistan, Mukhopadhyay considers the transformation of several Afghan warlord-commanders into provincial governors as part of a larger examination of the role informal power plays in the state-building project. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islamic extremism, a consensus emerged in the West that the international community had a responsibility to shepherd fractured nations from insecurity and strife to a stable peace underwritten by a platform of liberal democracy. The introduction of "good governance" through the cultivation of transparent, merit-based institutions (all accountable to to the rule of law and the people they served) was a means to this end. The implementation of such policies would eliminate "warlord-commanders," whose guns, looted wealth, and territorial control stood in the way of establishing legitimate government. Nowhere was this policy on better display than in post-2001 Afghanistan - and nowhere were its failures more obvious than in the powerful role played by prominent commanders who later became provincial governors.

Through four case studies (two in-depth and two shadow), she argues that symbiotic partnerships between the fledgling Afghan central government and a select set of warlord-commanders have yielded a hybrid brand of provincial governance. Hybrid provincial governance falls short of the articulated ambition of the current state-building and counterinsurgency models, but it does not represent failed statehood nor anarchic tribalism. Governors Gul Agha Sherzai and Atta Mohammad Noor, the subjects of in-depth research, have, in Tillyian terms, enabled the accumulation and concentration of coercion, capital, and political connection through strategies that reflect the matrix of challenges and opportunities they face in two very different provinces. Both are stronger today as governors than they were as commanders, a reality that has deepened their investment in the pursuit of political careers inside the state. Their incumbencies have inflicted inefficiencies, corruption, and abuse on their citizens, but they have also advanced security, major reductions in poppy cultivation, trade, physical reconstruction, the remittance of revenue to Kabul, and the presence of "government" at the periphery. As part of this theory-building exercise, she has constructed a typological index of warlord-commander strength to employ as part of the next phase of this research: to test and refine the causal argument systematically and with rigor, not only in Afghanistan, but in other so-called fragile or failing states where weak formal institutions coexist with resilient forms of informal power.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay received her PhD from Tufts University's Fletcher School in the fall of 2010 and received a BA in political science from Yale University. She wrote her dissertation on state-building and provincial governance in Afghanistan, particularly on the role of warlord commanders-turned-provincial governors. As part of her doctoral research, she conducted nearly two hundred interviews in eastern and northern Afghanistan, as well as Kabul, having spent several months in-country in 2007, 2008, and 2009. In 2004, she also conducted a brief training and research trip for the Agha Khan Development Network in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

Mukhopadhyay's research has been funded by the Eisenhower Institute, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the US Institute of Peace, Harvard Law School, and the US Department of Education. Dipali's writings have been published academically as well as by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and US News & World Report. She has worked on Afghanistan in consultation with the US Department of Defense, the Canadian government, the US military, and the World Bank.