As a young PhD student, I first met Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal in 2011 during my first research trip to India. I was struggling to develop a dissertation prospectus on counterinsurgency strategy and had decided to spend some time collecting insights from military practitioners. I had been introduced to Gurmeet by a friend and was now sitting outside his office at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi on a crisp but sunny January afternoon.
One of the hardest challenges for a PhD student is to learn how to humble yourself, appreciating how little you know, while finding mentors who will look past your hubris to appreciate your earnest intellectual curiosity and offer you insights and sage counsel. (I would soon discover both).
So naturally, after introductions, I proceeded to commit the crime all grad students do of posing a five-minute literature review masquerading as a question, finishing with “…and do you have thoughts on any of that?” Throughout it all, Gurmeet remained patiently engaged, and at the end he chuckled, leaned back, and said, “Sure. But let’s wait for the tea first.”
We talked a lot about counterinsurgency, the Afghanistan surge, and LoC operations that day, but Gurmeet also posed searching questions about me—the person I was and who I was becoming. He seemed to have a genuine interest in hard questions but also the people who asked them. And from that a friendship and mentorship sprung, upon which I’ve never closely reflected until now.
Over the past decade, I got to know Gurmeet through reading his prolific work, regular email exchanges, and discussions over many cups of chai. As I moved through graduate school and doctoral fellowships, I would check in with him from time to time, but after my arrival at the Stimson Center, our interactions became more frequent, hosting each other for roundtables in New Delhi and Washington DC, or simply trading analysis over meals.
Gurmeet had a sincere desire to help young analysts advance their research and thinking—no matter their experience—to nurture their intellectual journey, even if at the end they concluded differently from him.
In every discussion with Gurmeet, I always found myself disagreeing with him on something (we held very different theories from escalation control to civil conflict management), while also learning from him, and discovering a new dimension to his incredible generosity. Seeing Gurmeet respectfully diverge from colleagues at a conference or perusing his enviable but diverse library, I’m convinced he subscribed to John Stuart Mill’s concept of the “marketplace of ideas” even if he never said so because of the importance he accorded to healthy discussion, debate, and disagreement. I saw this with colleagues, with strangers at conferences, and with contributors to South Asian Voices to whom he lent his testimonial.
One of the topics we sometimes differed on was Indian strategy in Kashmir. But when I was on a research trip to the region and sent him a last minute email request for his help in setting up a meeting with a Corps Commander, he did not hesitate to arrange it. Within 24 hours I had a meeting. Brig. Kanwal commanded so much respect in South Asia strategic circles that when he called, people picked up the phone and listened.
I expect he would have expended this relational capital for anyone. Gurmeet saw himself as advancing strategic discourse, not only with his own manifold contributions, but also by fostering the work of the next generations. Gurmeet had a sincere desire to help young analysts advance their research and thinking—no matter their experience—to nurture their intellectual journey, even if at the end they concluded differently from him.
The last time I saw him was at his home on February 27, 2019. We both watched the second day of the Balakot crisis unfold on television news and speculated about the implications for strategic stability in South Asia. As always, he was, all-at-once insightful, provocative, interested in my take, and encouraging of future research on this inflection point. I’ll remember that fondly, and strive to pay that generosity forward.