Civil-military information-sharing portals Civil-military information-sharing portals Photo credit: community.apan.org, cimicweb.org, ronna-afghan.harmonieweb.org
Towards more effective civil-military information-sharing in stabilisation contexts
by Steven A. Zyck January 2013

Afghanistan has come to be seen as a laboratory for the development of civil–military coordination and information sharing. However, while numerous information-sharing portals have been established, none has emerged as the single indispensable venue for coordination between civilian organisations and military actors. As this article explains, the limited uptake of such systems reflects three broad challenges: technical problems in the design of information-sharing systems; concerns among civilian organisations that sharing information with the military violates humanitarian principles and puts them at greater risk of attack; and the military’s long-standing restrictions on sharing information.

Information-sharing portals for Afghanistan

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Within Afghanistan, face-to-face coordination and information-sharing initially involved a Civil–-Military Working Group and various initiatives designed by Regional Commands and Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). These were frequently ad hoc and were unable to bring together all relevant stakeholders. Subsequently, a number of web-based platforms have been developed, including the Civil–-Military Fusion Centre (CFC), the US military’s RONNAHarmonieWeb system, the US inter-governmental Protected Information Exchange (PIX, formerly Indure/Tabulae) and the All Partners Access Network (APAN) (see Table 1).

These systems approach information-sharing in very different ways. For instance, APAN uses discussion fora and document libraries built up by participants, a model similar to that employed by PIX and RONNA, while the CFC focuses more on distilling published information into short research reports. For the most part, these systems are intended to share information with all the stakeholders that use them, rather than allowing one specific individual or organisation to share information with another.

Challenges facing information-sharing portals

A number of technical challenges hinder effective information-sharing. Sites tend to require passwords, and several of the systems noted above only allow people to join if they are specifically invited or sponsored by a current user. Sites also tend to be poorly designed and ill-suited for individuals with relatively weak web connections. For instance, PIX includes an excellent mapping function, but it requires several minutes to load and is difficult to navigate. RONNA, while containing excellent information, is organised into several different sub-sites with different structures and security settings, making navigation cumbersome.

There are also concerns among civilian agencies about the implications of sharing information with the military, in terms of operational independence, neutrality and the safety of staff and beneficiaries. While online information-sharing tools were designed to sidestep face-to-face information sharing, sharing information or collaborating with the military in a web portal is not necessarily more permissible than doing so in a public forum, and civilian organisations cannot be confident that online information-sharing will not become known to armed groups. The Taliban, for instance, are increasingly web savvy and are likely to be aware of systems such as those noted here. In addition, military actors could make it known to Afghan communities or local leaders that they are receiving information from NGOs. Military forces in Afghanistan have demonstrated a tendency to boast about instances where they have cooperated with NGOs and other civilian organisations, and have in the past appropriated the logos of civilian organisations for use in presentations; accordingly, civilian agencies may have little confidence that they would handle web-based information sharing with the requisite degree of discretion.

Lastly, the military has frequently been unable or unwilling to use information-sharing systems given concerns regarding information security and a tendency to over-classify information. While senior military officers increasingly emphasise the need to share information with civilian organisations and local government institutions, there are few incentives to do so. A soldier who shares information risks severe repercussions if this is perceived as a violation of information security policies. While information disclosure officers have the authority to de-classify information in the interest of transparency and collaboration with civilian stakeholders, they are in exceedingly short supply. Nor would a typical UN or NGO worker in Afghanistan know whether the information they wanted existed in classified sources, or how to engage with someone capable of declassifying that information. As a result, ‘civil–-military’ systems ultimately end up allowing the military to access civilian information without offering civilian stakeholders much in return. In fact, military stakeholders have not even used these systems to share information that they had agreed – within the Kabul-based Civil–-Military Working Group – to supply to civilian counterparts, including reports concerning civilian casualties caused by international military forces and plans for military operations that could affect humanitarian personnel.

The challenges noted above have been exacerbated by the military’s ownership of ‘civil-–military’ portals and by the specific language used by military bodies when discussing information-sharing. Information-sharing systems are almost exclusively established and owned by military institutions or alliances, with no civilian involvement in their design, management or operation. Information-sharing has also been complicated by the use of syntax that is divisive or not accepted by civilian stakeholders. For instance, one relatively recent US military information-sharing initiative describes its function as ‘full spectrum information sharing, timely assessments [and] appropriate lethal and non-lethal target development’, an objective that civilian stakeholders would presumably find both unclear and objectionable.

Improving civil-military information-sharing

Civil–-military information-sharing will continue to be pursued given that national governments and organisations such as NATO continue to emphasise joined-up, civil–-military or comprehensive approaches to crisis response. It will also continue to face significant challenges, including a military incentive structure that complicates information-sharing as well as humanitarian and development agencies that wish to operate in conflict-affected environments without being perceived as partisan. Given these obstacles, information-sharing will remain limited to those military bodies that are able to achieve two-way information flows, and to those civilian organisations that accept some degree of relatively discrete engagement with the military in stabilisation and reconstruction contexts. Hence, the following recommendations admittedly represent only a partial solution, applicable to a limited range of stakeholders.

  • Ensure portals are established transparently and collaboratively. Civil–-military information-sharing systems should be established through a collaborative process and should be ‘owned’ by a trusted entity. The United Nations, a collection of major bilateral donors or a private entity (e.g. a think tank or university) with a high level of credibility are all viable candidates. Once a host institution has been identified, it should lead a participatory process to collect the requirements and expectations of civilian and military stakeholders.
  • Design the system to be user-friendly. Keep the information technology platform ‘light’ and easy to use. Complex structures and poor search functions are a core trap of many of the existing systems reviewed in this article. Few if any people in highly insecure contexts have the time to navigate and explore a virtual space replete with libraries, discussion forums and so on. By keeping information requirements structured and clear, users will be able to keep the system updated and find the information they require.
  • Don’t overlook the human element. Ensure that any information technology portal also includes a team of subject-matter experts. This secretariat would be able to consolidate information shared by civilian and military agencies in order to put together useful products, such as simple maps showing which organisations are involved in which sectors in which districts. One example is the Afghanistan Provincial Indicators (API) system produced by the CFC via its CimicWeb portal. The API consolidates data on development, governance and security for all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces from numerous public sources, including UN agencies and Afghan government institutions. Resources such as the API or the CFC’s Afghanistan Map Library help to make information more accessible simply by organising it more effectively. It may be best to think of the secretariat as curators or librarians who are able to bring order and structure to information once the sheer volume being shared becomes too large to easily process or navigate.

Of course, such technical recommendations will not necessarily result in humanitarian organisations abandoning their attachment to neutrality or impartiality, or military officers opening the floodgates and releasing a cascade of sensitive information. That said, some useful steps can be taken to prepare the ground for civil–-military information-sharing in the future. Firstly, humanitarian organisations must help the military to better understand why the principles of neutrality and impartiality to which most ascribe are important, so that military officers become less vocal in proclaiming those instances in which they may receive information from particular civilian organisations. At present, many within the military continue to view humanitarian principles as principles for principles’ sake, an obstructionist set of values that serves no practical purpose. They should be informed that perceived cooperation between NGOs and the military – bolstered by policymakers’ and military officers’ statements about joined-up, civil–-military approaches to counter-insurgency – is one of several factors that have led to a sharp increase in attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan in recent years. While NGOs and others have previously conveyed such messages, they – and the military – need to keep emphasising this point given the size of military organisations and the high rates of turnover within the armed forces.

Secondly, the military must move beyond rhetoric that favours greater information-sharing, and should ensure that it gets the incentive structures right. Senior officers must take the lead on such issues rather than delegating them to information technology, civil affairs or public affairs personnel. Soldiers must be provided with new and clear regulations on what does and does not need to be classified. Those who over-classify information must be reprimanded, and those who share information that leads to positive outcomes should be rewarded and publicly praised for doing so. At the same time, additional information disclosure officers with the authority to de-classify documents should be put in place. Militaries must also establish well-advertised systems that can enable civilian organisations to identify the appropriate person to contact when they wish to seek information from the armed forces.

Thirdly, military institutions that request information from civilian agencies must be prepared, when requesting the information, to explain how it will be managed and for what purpose it will be used. Civilian organisations will be far less cautious about sharing information with the armed forces if they can be sure that it will be used for beneficial purposes, such as targeting reconstruction or humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities in highly insecure areas, that cannot be reached by NGOs. Furthermore, they must monitor the use of that information, ensuring that it does not feed into intelligence or targeting processes, and the armed forces should be ready and willing to explain what ultimately came of information provided by civilian organisations. While perhaps a daunting task, this will be crucial in strengthening civil–-military information-sharing.

None of the steps or measures recommended here will ultimately lead to the establishment of any universally trusted information-sharing system that is utilised by all stakeholders, and which enables everyone to obtain exactly the information they desire. There will always be gaps in knowledge and (often justified) mistrust between civilian and military stakeholders. That said, the ideas proposed here can incrementally move us in the right direction.

Steven A. Zyck is co-editor of Stability: International Journal of Security & Development and Associate of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York.

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