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The case for hope amid Afghanistan chaos

August 17, 2021

Rohan Titus worked for eight years in Afghanistan for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and as Chief of Political Affairs for the United Nations Assistance Mission. PICTURE: Supplied.

In March this year, Bond University alumnus Rohan Titus was interviewed for the ARCH magazine on his time in Afghanistan as Chief of Political Affairs for the United Nations Assistance Mission. Following the Taliban takeover of the country, his views on the courage and fortitude of the Afghani people offer hope for the future. 

Between October and April, the Hindu Kush mountain range is covered in heavy snow. For the rest of the year, the jagged peaks and the surrounding Afghanistan countryside are bone-dry.

It’s a harsh, unforgiving environment. Even the name Hindu Kush translates to “Killer of Hindus”.

Afghanistan is a country steeped in tradition, but also in violence.

From Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, through to the Afghan Civil War, the Soviet invasion of 1979 and more recently coalition operations against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIL, for centuries the soil of the so-called “graveyard of empires” has been stained with blood.

For the past eight years, Afghanistan has also been home to Rohan Titus (Class of 1991), firstly at the end of his 24 years of service with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and in the past two years in his role as Chief of Political Affairs for the United Nations Assistance Mission.

Mr Titus leads a small team in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul, a team which also has offices in Islamabad (Pakistan) and Tehran (Iran). His role is broad, encompassing stabilisation of the region and how its political leaders and Parliament function together.

He views the character of the Afghan people as inextricably linked with their surrounds.

“That countryside, that extreme high-altitude, dry, dusty, dirty atmosphere shapes the people. These are gutsy, gutsy people, their sense of survival in harshness is ten times ours. The Afghans are amazing in their fortitude and their perseverance.

“You won’t ever meet a more generous or warm-hearted people, they’re very conscious of hospitality and their honour, and their sense of personal dignity.”

He’s also acutely aware of the region’s turbulent past, and its reverberations into the present.  

“What is fascinating about this place is that humanity has been here for as long as humanity has been pretty much everywhere outside of Africa, they’ve walked through, ridden through, flown over, driven through, but they’ve stopped at some point and some part of their culture and identity has remained.

“And when you put that together, what you’re looking at is an extreme version of all of our problems as well as all of our solutions.”

In Afghanistan, those problems are manifold.

The treatment of women and children as well as minorities and non-Muslims remains an issue which is being addressed, albeit slowly.

The region has been badly impacted by climate change, which has led to a poor season for crop production. Afghanistan is one of the world’s major producers of heroin, and methamphetamine is now making its insidious presence felt. The country’s medical facilities have been placed under enormous strain by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Afghanistan hasn’t held a census since the Soviet invasion 40 years ago, and while the current population is believed to be around 32 million people, about 18 million of those are estimated as being in extreme need, including 5 million children.

The risk to those living and working in Afghanistan remains very real. Mr Titus cites the example of one of his colleagues, whose daily commute to work with her husband is carried out under the constant threat of car bombs.

“When he drops her off, she doesn’t know whether she’ll see him again, then he comes to pick her up to take her home – rinse and repeat forever.”

Mr Titus remains in awe of the resilience of the Afghan people in the face of these challenges.

“The quality of the people, the dedication in the face of extreme threat to keep going and make things better around them, it’s been absolutely eye-opening.

“The Afghan people are just like any other people in the world, they have the same hopes, the same desires, they want to live in peace, they want their kids to grow up safely, become educated, get good jobs, they want to see their grandchildren grow up in a safe place. I think that’s very similar for people everywhere I’ve been all over the world.”

“All over the world” is no exaggeration. Mr Titus’s current posting is just the latest stop in a storied global career that has seen him work in India, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Brunei, and Jordan.   

Events of the past year, in particular, have led Mr Titus to reflect on the human condition and the impermanence of functioning societies.

“I think we have to remember how close we are to the edge of chaos, no matter what country we’re in, whether it’s Germany in the 1930s or…what we all watched happen in the United States at the beginning of the year. I’m not saying those are necessarily tipping points, because often common sense does prevail, but they can lead to periods of madness, and civil wars are essentially national level suicide attempts, they’re not decisions made by people in their right minds.”

And while it’s easy to view these global ruptures from a safe distance, Mr Titus feels it’s also important to look closer to home.

“Disrespect for individuals, disrespect for people who are different, these are the same problems whether it’s civil war in Afghanistan or whether it’s the national debate in Australia about gendered violence, the treatment of all Australians as equals, whether they’re Indigenous or have different sexual orientation or gender or ethnicity, it’s exactly the same disease but played out to the point where it becomes fatal.”  

Despite this, he remains optimistic for the future of humanity, describing us as “beautifully different”, although hindered by short-termism.

“If we’re all going to get along and make this work, we’re going to have to collectivise on many, many levels, no matter how much that is upsetting and threatening to our sense of self.

“Our problems are not personal, they’re global, whether it’s climate change or transnational terrorism, transnational drugs, the rise of global intolerance, major trade shifts and power politics, whatever it might be – at a minimal level it’ll affect the price of your Amazon purchase, but at a maximalist level, the world is a better place if we say that’s not actually the best way to go forward collectively.”   

Part of the solution, he feels, can be found in education, with a particular focus on humanities.

“You can’t tell me that any of the people who’ve busted a gut trying to create a COVID vaccine haven’t got a profound sense of humanity.

“Our best politicians are the ones who studied humanities as well as their professional discipline, because they have a broader view.”

Turning his mind to the benefits of education leads Mr Titus to his time at Bond, from where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1994, having begun his studies as part of a small intake of about 35 students.

“Even among that small group there was such magnificent diversity, from our rugby-playing partying Fijians who were taking on the law faculty and really trying so hard to get their degrees, and then there was a really great mix of Japanese and Indian students and people from all over Australia.”

He still has close links to the University even now, regularly visiting campus whenever he returns to Australia, and has retained close friendships with many of those he studied with.

Mr Titus is grateful for the opportunities life has given him, opportunities which he freely acknowledges weren’t available to others less fortunate, but who were potentially more deserving than he was.

“My message to people is, if you do have privileges, seize the advantages they present and step back out of the way of people who are struggling, who have better skills and are more meritorious and help them forward. It doesn’t do you any harm at all if people climb on your back over the wall and then reach out a hand to help you over. That’s not a bad thing.

“If we’re struggling for things, we’ve stuffed up. If we’re struggling for principles, we’ve kind of got it right.”