When Australian soldiers give Afghan children the "thumbs up", it's a sign of goodwill, one the kids return. But according to senior federal government officials, the universal gesture has another meaning: "f-ck you".
So when the authors of an expert report on Australia's aid program in Afghanistan wanted to use a photo of an Afghan boy giving the thumbs up, they were given a firm official thumbs down. Instead, senior bureaucrats in AusAID, the federal government's international development agency, asked that it be cut from the report on the grounds it was culturally offensive.
The request was just one point of friction between AusAID and Kabul-based consultants hired to assess Australia's aid and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province. Official documents
have now revealed how that tension reached a tipping point in April, when AusAID sacked the consultants, axing their $US3.6 million contact and leaving Australia without any independent oversight of progress in an aid program worth $30 million this year.
The documents, obtained by the federal opposition under freedom of information laws, show how relations between AusAID and the consultants, known as The Liaison Office, frayed to breaking point, leading to opposition claims the government was trying to cloak its Afghan aid program in "false spin and gloss". AusAID flatly denies the charge, insisting its decision to axe the contract was based on TLO's repeated failure to meet reporting deadlines.
The documents reveal missed deadlines were not the only point of friction between Australian officials and TLO. Instead they show Australian officials made repeated requests for changes in draft reports, questioned TLO's assessment of security conditions, and insisted one chapter not be published. The offending chapter dealt with the views of ordinary Afghans on Australia's military and civilian aid work in Oruzgan province.
The documents highlight how AusAID sees itself as an integral part of the military mission in Afghanistan, with aid officials seeing no contradiction between war-fighting and development performance in Afghanistan since August 2010.
While AusAID insists it simply made "suggestions" for changes which TLO could accept or reject, the documents show senior TLO researcher Susanne Schmeidl believed that, when AusAID requested parts be cut, "we presume this is what you'd really like to do".
During negotiations on the wording of the report, an AusAID official wrote to TLO in February thus year: "We will read your revised submission of the annual report and consider exclusion of sections for public release." In another email in February, AusAID official Sophie Temby disputed TLO's assessment of security in two districts of Oruzgan province, on the grounds that it was not in accord with the perceptions of AusAID officials and was inconsistent with other TLO reporting.
She also questioned TLO reporting of claims of corruption involving a local official, on the grounds that Australian officials had not heard of the allegations.
Temby rejected TLO's assumption of a contradiction between civilian development work and the army's counter-insurgency strategy. Instead, she said the two were "complimentary, with each element doing a bit of both". She said military forces and civilian-led reconstruction teams "are all under a single mandate that includes security, governance and development (ie, not a contradiction between 'waging war' or 'development' as it is presented in the text)".
AusAID's suggested changes to the report extended to its cover page, which TLO wanted to illustrate with the photo of a small boy making a "thumbs up" gesture, in keeping with the report's tone of cautious optimism. But AusAID insisted the photo not be used, on the grounds that thumbs up "is the traditional gesture for f-ck you".
TLO reluctantly agreed to ditch the photo, even though Dr Schmeidl argued Afghan children learned the gesture from foreign soldiers, and their parents did not find it offensive.
The offensive photo and the final published report