Sharing to Succeed: Lessons from Open Information-Sharing Projects in Afghanistan

By Wells, Linton, II; Bosworth, James et al. | Defense Horizons, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Sharing to Succeed: Lessons from Open Information-Sharing Projects in Afghanistan


Wells, Linton, II, Bosworth, James, Crowley, John, Blachly, Rebecca Linder, Defense Horizons


The sharing of information in complex civil-military operations (1) is important, yet actors rarely do it well. U.S. and allied military forces must be able to communicate, collaborate, and exchange information effectively with the local populations they seek to influence, or they cannot achieve the goals for which they have been committed. Nonetheless, experience from stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, numerous humanitarian assistance/ disaster relief missions, and efforts to build the capacity of foreign partners suggest that effective information-sharing is much harder than might be expected. This paper sheds light on the difficulties of setting up and sustaining projects to share information in such situations and suggests ways to do better in the future.

The reasons are straightforward. Government practitioners are unfamiliar with many of the technical solutions to ineffective information-sharing. Moreover, information-sharing runs counter to long-held information-controlling habits. Incentives rarely reward sharing and instead punish leaks. Projects that try to mitigate information-sharing problems typically take a long time to develop, need broad coalitions to implement, and have results that are hard to measure and attribute. Many of the stakeholders do not have institutional ties and some actively seek to minimize relationships with each other. As has often been seen in projects in Afghanistan, changes in personnel and government priorities can make projects hard to sustain. Collectively, the impacts have been detrimental to information-sharing.

This paper draws on examples from Afghanistan to highlight some lessons that members of diverse organizations have observed over a number of years. (2) The first case study focuses on an informal information-sharing project near Jalalabad in Nangarhar Province that builds on personal relationships and technical infrastructures developed since 2006. It is colloquially referred to as the Nangarhar pilot and continues to unfold. The second project, termed UnityNet, went through various phases. A combination of organizations in Washington and Kabul began UnityNet in mid-2010 to build on experiences from Nangarhar and elsewhere to develop a globally deployable, sustainable program to share population-centric, or "white," information. However, personnel turned over and disagreements developed over the purpose and scope of the project. Efforts to move UnityNet away from its original white information focus and repurpose it for "green" (government-military) intelligence collection raised concerns that associating with it could jeopardize people in the field who had intended to support only population-centric information-sharing. In early 2011, components of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan proposed an implementation effort under UnityNet, called UnityNet Afghanistan, to support Village Stability Operations (VSO). However, the continued emphasis on green intelligence reraised the same concerns about the safety of associated partners and UnityNet was terminated. The third case relates to a new follow-on project, focused on both green and white information, that was named Jade-A in June 2011. An assessment team evaluated its status in early 2012.

The origins of the various efforts along with examples of their activities and descriptions of how different kinds of open information were accessed and shared are outlined below. Some of the organizational challenges that each approach encountered and the lessons available to be learned if behaviors can be changed--at several levels--are also included. This is important since the lessons are similar to those derived from other contingencies and may be applicable in other regions in the future.

It is also vital to distinguish some of the categories of information this paper addresses. Classified information involves a variety of dissemination restrictions. Confidential, secret, and top secret are the most well known, and each has its own handling rules. …

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