Collaboration: Key to Successful Civil-Military Operations

Updated: May 21, 2020

By Assad A. Raza

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, speaks at a meeting held at the Faryab Province governor's palace. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O'Donald


In 2007, then Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), coined the term "collaborative warfare" to describe their approach to counter-terrorism in Iraq.1 He highlighted their successes in Iraq to the collaboration between all of the stakeholders (CIA, DoS, DoD) working counter-terrorism.2 To create a culture of collaboration within organizations that were historically compartmentalized was a drastic shift in mindset for all of them. However, this cultural shift increased the sharing of information and resources to achieve unity of effort towards common objectives.

Every organization could learn from McChrystal’s initiatives to increase collaboration with all partners working towards common goals. According to Joint Publication 3-08, Interorganizational Cooperation, the term collaboration is described as “a process where organizations work together to attain common goals by sharing knowledge, learning, and building consensus.”3 Hence, this is beyond just coordination, its establishing processes to facilitate the sharing of information and resources towards everyone’s goals. It should be clear that collaboration is done at all levels, from tactical to strategic, for all types of missions.

Also, it is important to note that collaboration is not limited to just counter-terrorism but applied across the range of military operations. Throughout history, we have witnessed collaboration in all types of missions, from counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan to humanitarian assistance in response to natural and man-made disasters. For example, in 1994, after the genocide in Rwanda, U.S forces supported the United Nations and local NGOs with the movement of humanitarian aid, water purification, and establishment of a Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC) to enable synchronization of humanitarian efforts.4 This example demonstrates how different organizations, from international organizations to non-governmental, had to look beyond their organizational barriers to accomplish a mission. If not overlooked, these barriers could have negatively caused delays in resources and information, negatively impacting mission accomplishment.

Although collaboration is nothing new, it is vital to reinforce the importance of coordinating with other stakeholders and understanding their contribution to mission success. More importantly, as missions decrease and training for large-scale combat operations (LSCO) increases, the importance of collaboration may get overshadowed by other competing priorities. For these reasons, this article will discuss lessons learned on collaboration with different partners and how to apply them across the U.S. military.

Lessons Learned

In 2012, the State Department’s Office of the Global Partnership Initiative and the Institute for Corporate Responsibility at the George Washington University School of Business hosted a one-day seminar called “Uncommon Alliances: Real Partnerships, Real Experiences, Real Impacts.”5 This seminar focused on lessons learned from developing partnerships across the globe. These valuable lessons can be applied to any organization, civilian or military, who must collaborate with different partners. This article will use these lessons as a framework to describe how the U.S. military can utilize them in areas of cooperation.

At this seminar, there was a total of ten lessons focused on collaboration discussed. These lessons were recorded and published by public diplomacy professor and author, Nicholas J. Cull, who attended the seminar.6 Below are the ten lessons learned described by Cull, and a brief explanation on how military professionals can apply them.

1. Agree Objectives: It is important that all parties to a partnership have a clear idea of objectives and share a vision for the project.

2. Manage Expectations: It is important that all parties understand the limits of partnership, most especially issues around duration and who else parties might choose to partner.

3. Establish Trust: It is important that all parties come to trust one another. Despite the march of electronic media, the view of practioners was that there was no substitute for face-to-face meetings when building the kind of trust necessary to run a successful collaboration.

4. Protect Trust. It is important that all parties continue to trust one another, and the best way to do that is to remain in regular touch.

5. Insist on Equality. Practioners reported that part of the preparation for a successful partnership was to insist that all parties be treated equally and not segmented by rank. Most especially, it was important that the scale of particular financial donations not be disclosed, and that contributions in kind be given equal status.

6. Allow and Respect Specialism. The extension of the equality principle was to be open to a diversity of expertise and to understand that different partners bring different expertise to the table.

7. Cross Boundaries, Sectors, and Generations. Partnership not only allows but requires boundary crossing and working with people from across divides of professional experience. Barriers need not be geographical.

8. Celebrate the Differences. The practioners reported that diversity within partnerships was actually one of the things that made them fun and that it made sense to explicitly emphasize and direct attention to the range of actors involved.

9. Share the Credit. Veterans of partnerships recalled that an otherwise successful instance of cooperation could be tarnished by one partner taking the lion’s share of the credit and failing to acknowledge the role of a collaborator.

10. Part Before it Gets Old. The most surprising piece of advice from participants in partnerships was the recognition that the best partnerships had a sunset built in and that parties should not be made to feel that entering into a partnership was an exclusive or indefinite commitment. Combination and recombination of partners in fresh projects kept even familiar issues exciting, continually opening new perspectives.

-Drawn from Nicholas J. Cull’s notes of the session.7

These ten lessons can be applied at all levels in the military, from tactical to strategic, where collaboration can take place. More importantly, when working with different civilian agencies who may not fully understand military goals and operations.8 Civil-Military relationships initially can be difficult to establish as each organization may have different priorities as they work toward a common goal. Therefore, developing a shared understanding and approach towards shared objectives is imperative.

As lesson #1 states, each organization must come to a consensus of the objectives. All partners should establish agreed-upon objectives that complement each organizations’ own distinct goals. Setting these common objectives early on during the planning process is vital in collaboration. Also, these combined planning efforts will help identify the constraints and limitations of each party involved.

Identifying the constraints and limitations of each party will also assist with expectation management. For example, some NGOs are heavily influenced by their principal donors which can limit their contribution to an activity that involves the military.9 These constraints can become challenges within the planning process but can also provide opportunities for other partners to identify solutions to overcome them. Additionally, this collaborative planning can assist in building trust between parties as they identify solutions to a problem.

Trust is a key part of developing and maintaining relationships with participating partners. According to Joint Publication 3-08, Interorganizational Cooperation, some of the most common techniques for collaboration is the formation of working groups, planning teams, and other enduring or temporary cross-functional staff organizations, for example, through a Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC) to support mission accomplishment.10 These ad hoc collaboration techniques also help build trust and increase information flow between all parties.

Additionally, trust can promote equality between all participants, especially when the most prominent organization in the room, may be, the military. More important, equality among participants can neutralize bureaucratic barriers to cooperation. Ensuring equality and sharing of credit among all participants contributes to successful unity of effort towards common objectives. Appreciation of all participants' contributions will be vital in maintaining good relations with those partners and will facilitate future collaborative efforts.


Leaders at all levels must realize that Civil-Military relationships are collaborative in nature. Typically, the military focuses on their military objectives, in contrast to their civilian counterparts, who are focused on goals spread across political, economic, social, and humanitarian interests.11 However, history has proven that military leaders must be prepared to collaborate with civilian organizations to find areas of mutual interest to accomplish their mission. These ten lessons provide a framework to leverage when collaborating with partners.

These lessons and insights provide best practices on collaboration that can be used by both civilian and military organizations. Establishing common objectives, understanding all parties’ interests, and establishing trust to overcome bureaucratic obstacles are critical in collaboration. Moreover, successful partnerships can enable the sharing of information and resources toward common goals, and set conditions for future collaborative efforts. The complex missions’ leaders will face requires this “collaborative warfare” approach that General McChrystal has proven successful many times over.12

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

End Notes 1. Lamb, Christopher. 2014. "Global SOF and Interagency Collaboration." Journal of Strategic Security 7, no. 2: 8-20,

2. Ibid. 3. Joint Chief of Staff. Joint Publication 3-08 Interorganizational Cooperation. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, October 12, 2016.

4. Global Security. “Operation Support Hope.” Accessed May 9, 2020.

5. The George Washington University School of Business. “Uncommon Alliances: Real Partnerships, Real Experiences, Real Impacts.” Accessed May 9, 2020.

6. Cull, Nicholas John. Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2019.

7. Ibid.

8. Joint Chief of Staff. Joint Publication 3-08.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Lamb, Christopher. 2014. "Global SOF and Interagency Collaboration."

About the Author

Assad Raza is an Active Duty Civil Affairs Officer in the United States Army. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Tampa, a M.A. in Diplomacy w/concentration in International Conflict Management from Norwich University, and a Master of Military Art and Science (MMAS) from The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation Command and General Staff Officer Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. Follow him on Twitter: @assadraza12

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