Passing Dr. Dipali Mukhopadhyay in the hallway of the International Affairs building, you might easily mistake her for one of the many SIPA students that fill the building each day. A petite, stylish, aspiring DJ that likes house music and techno, she easily blends in. Most would find Mukhopadhyay easygoing and inviting, and considering the above, it might surprise some to learn that her expertise is in an area that is much more serious: the study of conflict and violence.
Mukhopadhyay is one of the University’s newest faculty members, joining Columbia and SIPA as an Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs in July 2012. Educated at Yale and Tufts, she has been studying conflict for over a decade, with a special emphasis on warlords and Afghanistan. When asked what drew her to these subjects, she responded that early in her academic career she became very concerned with cycles of violence. She wants to know “why violence happens, how it starts, and what can be done.” And for those that are going to study cycles of violence, Mukhopadhyay says that “there are not many countries as defined by violence as Afghanistan is.”
Although Mukhopadhyay has spent much of her adult life doing research, she has experience in the policy world as well, working as a consultant for both the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the Foreign Ministry of Canada. In fact, earlier in her career she had a chance to go in another direction. In the summer of 2005, while a graduate student at Tufts, Mukhopadhyay worked as an intern for the DoD. At the end of her time as an intern she was offered a full-time position as an Assistant Country Director for Afghanistan.
She declined the offer, instead remaining on the path toward her Ph.D. Mukhopadhyay enjoys looking at the world’s problems in the abstract, first considering the bigger picture, and then drilling down. She worried that she may not get to do that from inside the government. It’s her feeling that sometimes policy is reactive, and policymakers miss an opportunity to step back and see that bigger picture.
Mukhopadhyay also believes that students who want to engage the world, whether they be future policymakers or researchers, need to get out and observe it themselves. In order to think critically, and not take assumptions at their face value, she says that it is important to “understand a place on its own terms.”
Mukhopadhyay herself has visited Afghanistan on four separate occasions spanning from 2004 to 2009. Her first trip to the country was as an intern in 2004, and later as an independent researcher working on her dissertation, “The Warlord Governor in Post-2001 Afghanistan.” She attributes her opportunity to make a strong connection with local leadership to the fact that on later trips she was largely on her own. “I was not tied to money, or any political agency. That, along with frequent trips, showed commitment,” she said. Her research on warlords in Afghanistan will result in a book titled, Warlords, Strongman Governors and State Building in Afghanistan, due out soon.
Back in the classroom for now, Mukhopadhyay is currently teaching a class on “State Formation, Violence, and Intervention” with a special focus on Afghanistan. While it is too late to get in this semester, Mukhopadhyay will be two offering courses this spring—“Warlords, Militiamen, and Mafias” and “Foreign Intervention and Conflict Management.” In the meantime, she encourages any students interested in warlords and power-structures in Afghanistan to reach out to her. If you can offer her any DJing advice in trade, even better.
Ryan Beck is a first-year Master of Public Administration student. This article originally appeared in the September 25, 2012 issue of Communiqué.