Like most scholars, Colin Kahl is something of a bookworm, often content to be buried in academic journals, history books, and the latest edition of The State of the World. But when it comes to researching current affairs, Kahl believes there's no substitute for gathering subject matter firsthand. That's why he went to Iraq last June.
Photo by Cameron Wittig
As part of his more general interest in “failed states," Kahl has followed the Iraq war with a scholar's trademark rigor. While he has previously focused on stresses and disruptions that weaken states from the inside—environmental destruction, demographic pressures, and resource scarcity, for instance—in this case he's interested in disturbances from outside, such as intervention by “strong states" such as the United States.
“You can think of the first project as kind of examining the causes of state failure," says Kahl, an assistant professor of political science. “I then became interested in interventions into failed states, and that led me to U.S. conduct in interventions."
From January 2005 to August 2006, Kahl was a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow placed at the Department of Defense to gain on-the-ground experience related to his research. He spent time at three military pre-deployment training centers, observing U.S. units as they prepared for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also attended classes and conducted interviews at the Army's Judge Advocate General's School in Charlottesville, Va., and pored over extensive unclassified Pentagon documents and after-action reports from returning combat units.
In July, Kahl headed to Iraq for four days, to conduct interviews in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone and at Camp Victory, the U.S. military headquarters at the former Baghdad airport. It was an intense and unnerving experience, he recalls. “We got shelled every day I was there."
One result of Kahl's experience is a 20-page article recently published in Foreign Affairs magazine. In it, he argues that despite well-publicized military abuses like the alleged massacre of civilians in Haditha, the American military has done a better job of avoiding civilian casualties than many critics assert.
Kahl knows he is courting controversy. “People on the left are going to see my article as too apologetic for the military, and people on the right are going to think that it's too critical," he says. Indeed, the American record in Iraq is not unblemished, Kahl acknowledges, but he contends that most units have behaved within the confines of the laws of war, at least in their treatment of civilians.
“Relative to U.S. conduct in other wars in the 20th century and the conduct of wars historically by all powers, the United States has done a fairly exemplary job in living up to its commitments under international law not to target civilians," he says.
Kahl is now reporting on another aspect of the Americans' Geneva Convention compliance— how well the United States is meeting its obligation to provide for basic security and public services in Iraq. So far, it looks as though the verdict might be less positive.
“In many ways, the United States has not lived up to its obligation to provide for a secure and stable Iraq. The current strategy is not working," Kahl argues, noting in particular the absence of sufficient resources (including reconstruction dollars).
“To succeed, the U.S. has to fundamentally alter its strategy. That includes opening negotiations with all relevant parties, with the aim of setting firm conditions for continued U.S. presence; and supporting steps toward national reconciliation."
This is quintessential Kahl—a kind of up-front, unsparing appraisal that Kahl contends is impossible if academics are unwilling to examine military culture close up.
“I doubt that people who don't have those first-hand experiences can really understand," he says.
“I think the academy is not well served by people estranged from the military because they feel so uncomfortable with it. If you critique it from a distance, you're missing a lot of the story."