NEW YORK – Friends, colleagues, and the Greek-American community are mourning the tragic death Alexandros Petersen, who was one of 21 people who died in a suicide bombing and attack in Kabul. The January 17 attack, the worst on civilians since the war began, was apparently done by the Taliban.
Petersen, praised for his brilliance and character and already a distinguished scholar of Central Asia at the age of 29, was in a Lebanese restaurant popular with Westerners. He went to the capital of the war-torn country to teach political science and provide hope for a better future for the country’s youth at the American University of Afghanistan.
He had been in the country for only a week.
Petersen’s adventurous side was as obvious to people as his great intellect, and both from an early age. “Boyhood friends of Alexandros Petersen used to tease him that he was born a century or two late, because he was at heart a gentleman explorer in the grand tradition of Lawrence of Arabia,” the Washington Post reported.
What the general media missed, however, tugs at Greek-American intuitions. He didn’t call himself Alexander, and if Petersen wanted to be Lawrence, he would have gone to Arabia. He was Alexandros, so it is not surprising that he followed the footsteps of the Greek genius and conqueror – Megas Alexandros (Alexander the Great) – who spread Hellenism deep into Asia, into Afghanistan.
His death was followed by moving tributes by colleagues and representatives of the organizations for which he worked.
Ruby Gropas, a Research Fellow at the European University Institute, met Alexandros when he was an intern at the Wilson Center. “There was something exceptional about him that came across strongly as soon as you met him, and I was certain that he would have a bright professional future ahead. His talent and sharp-mind, his curiosity and sincere entrepreneurial spirit…and the ways in which he was able to articulate his thoughts and insight were truly impressive,” she told TNH.
“He also had incredible manners and a respectful politeness in the way he addressed people that is rare to find these days, Gropas added.
Andrew Apostolou, who has worked in Washington DC policy institutes, was impressed with his personality and character: “Alexandros was charming and adventurous. He went to Afghanistan to teach at a university. He went to help others. Alexandros set a fine example.”
The story of Petersen’s life is in “the apple does not fall far from the tree category: His parents are also patriotic Americans, devoted public servants and world citizens – his mother works for the IMF and his father at the World Bank.
John Sitilides, President of Trilogy Advisors and former director of the Western Policy Center, a think tank and research foundation that later merged with WWC, was among the first to detect Petersen’s talent and uniqueness.
While visiting his parents in when Petersen was attending King’s College in London, “He applied for an internship. We were impressed with this resume, then when we met him, he looked very young but sounded and acted much more mature than his years, and when we began to have discussions, we tapped into someone with intellectual and analytical talents beyond his years,” Sitilides said.
They were also very impressed by his writing. “We never published anything by our interns before, but he wrote a terrific piece for us.”
His assessment of Russian perceptions just after NATO extended its reach into the Black Sea with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria was remarkable in a City that is still struggling to accurately see that important country in a non-Cold War context.
Petersen wrote: “However, the Russians will likely perceive any NATO intrusion into their “near abroad” as inherently menacing. Therefore, it would be useful if NATO and the U.S., either through the NATO-Russia Council, or more directly through a special diplomatic team, were to make it clear to the Russian government that an alliance presence in the region strengthens Russia’s security. Intensive negotiations will have to begin in order to include Russia as a major partner of NATO efforts in the region.”
After the merger, Petersen won fellowship with the WWC and “really before anyone else was talking about energy issues in Southeast Europe, he planted that seed at the WCC,” he said.
Eventually his abilities and interests enable him to get involved “in the grand strategy discussion regarding Central Asia.”
“At the age of 29 he had already done work in four think tanks in Washington over the course of 10 years. People who knew him understood that he was writing his ticket on any foreign policy issue that he wanted to.
“It’s a horrific loss of a man who was cut down way too early in his life,” Sitilides said, but and he noted that it was a great intellectual loss. “It will be a loss for those issues and regions that were in his portfolio because he was giving them serious thought and therefore elevating them in Washington in ways that most others could not.”
“The family was overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection from so many people so that decided to hold a service this past weekend for family and close friends, so they encouraged the institutions he was affiliated with to jointly organize a commemoration in the next few weeks,” he said.
“It is also a profound loss for those Greek-Americans who got to know him well. This was a man who touched a lot of people and we are saddened by his loss.
When he last saw Petersen – friends called him Alex – he congratulated him on a piece he has published in the Weekly Standard. “I know the editors there and they are very demanding on who they allow to be published. It was a significant professional threshold for him to pass.”
Sitilides had no idea he was on his way to Afghanistan.
It was mostly a casual conversation on the human level that they shared that day, and they promised to communicate and get together over coffee or lunch. “We didn’t get around to it and that’s the last conversation I had with Alex. Nobody knew we would lose him two months later.”