I barely knew Alex Petersen. I didn’t know him nearly as well as his colleagues, or his coworkers, or those fortunate enough to witness him at work, parsing the traits and trends and tinted world of Eurasia. I knew him far less than, I imagine, the predominance of Registan’s writer- and readership. His name, however, arose, time and again, in the texts comprising the canon of Central Asian analysis. His name was known – his essays, his lectures, his books. His interviews spanned Georgian politicking, Ukrainian gas potential, Chinese encroachment into the Caspian. His work stood weighty and well-wrought, and carried a breadth and clarity that was not simply regarded in this world of Eurasian watchers, but in the broader interconnection of foreign wonks and diplomatic circles.
It was in this Central Asian pursuit that I first learned Alex’s name. Few, after all, are those in the West who have chosen this topic – this history, this future. Fewer yet are those who know what they’re doing, and what they’re witnessing. In reading on the region, you learn quickly which names carry merit, and which fly past – in Osh when it’s convenient, in Astana for the forum of the week, speeding to whichever hotspot crops next. You quickly understand who knows Andijan from Ashgabat, who knows Kashgar from Karimov, who understands the verticals and potentials and repercussions of the innumerable energy products and military maneuvers that swamp the region. Petersen, as anyone will attest, was among those few worth following. And he was one of the best at following the region – this World Island, as he called it. This Eurasian mass, Bangkok to Brussels, Pyongyang to the Pyrenees, from sea to shore, ’cross all the sprawl between. With Central Asia, square in the middle, of far greater import than most gave it credit.
I only met Alex once, a few months ago. We talked for hours. We talked about dozens of the threats and threads tying the region to itself, to the countries surrounding. The conversation ranged as wide as any I’d ever had, improvised, running from Gulnara’s Swiss investments to setting up gas fields in western Turkmenistan to the trading outposts along the Xinjiang-Kazakhstani border. Everything rounded, naturally. On the past. On what can, should, will come next. And it was that – that next step – that we discussed, and kept discussing, in the months since our meeting. What role Central Asia plays, post-2014, in American internationalism. If it should. If it will. And if it should, and if it will, how we can make sure that that interest and that involvement is met with the right reification. And what those of us, this younger generation exposed to and running with the region, can do. How we can appeal to the wider audiences, once the links to Afghanistan fade. Once the war ends. Once this longest, this recalcitrant war winds down, and America retrenches, and Central Asia stands with one less forum for appeal.
But Afghanistan’s not done, yet, and the war hemorrhages in its final year. And it is in this continued spiral that, last Friday, the Taliban escalated, and came for Western civilians at a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul. Taverna du Liban. The details of the attack don’t need rehashing – they can be found here, if needed – but few survived. Twenty-one didn’t. Alex, who had arrived only a few days earlier, set to begin work as assistant professor at the American University in Afghanistan, was among those killed.
The tragedies are myriad, as holistic as the war, as narrow as the new ground the Taliban have just broken. But there is an especial, layered heartbreak in Alex’s death. It’s not simply that his career was just beginning. It’s not simply that his students were set to learn from one of the most lucid, well-versed individuals they could hope to find. It’s not even that this next generation of Central Asia watchers just lost a mentor, and a friend. It’s that, rather, the region – this region that, from Washington’s perspective, is set for inevitable slip in import and interest – just lost one of the finest advocates it could hope to find. Central Asia just lost one of the best, most impassioned individuals it had outside. Those attacking didn’t know this. They couldn’t know that they were intending to murder one of the most well-spoken allies their country, and their region, maintained. This – this is a tragedy. This is one of the many. This is one of the greatest.
I didn’t know Alex as well as some of you, but I was getting to, and I was looking forward to. He was a lodestar. His was a path, and a personality, to follow, and to emulate. His encouragement ran wide. And it remains, along with his memory. Along with this hole. Because this circle is small – this circle of those interested and invested in the region. And it’s just lost one of best among us, when it, and we, could least afford to.