The nature of international efforts to help stabilise regions affected by war is changing.

Lengthy campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have left western powers increasingly risk averse and less inclined to take unilateral action. Opinion polls suggest that their constituents are more aware of, and less willing to bear the costs – in both money and lives – of fresh forays abroad, unless the threat is clear and present.

One outcome to be vigorously supported is a renewed determination by allied countries to join forces to rebuild systems of government and restore law and order in war-shattered regions such as the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The advantages are self-evident; less waste, greater impact and a swifter transition of power.

A striking example is the Provincial Reconstruction Team operating in Helmand. Its forms an energetic, multi-national hub for the combined efforts of US, UK, Danish and Estonian personnel, both civilian and military.

In principle it is a strategy that should pave the way for a faster exit, and be more likely to leave behind a population capable of governing and protecting its own.

In practice, integrated stabilisation missions introduce new hurdles that must be overcome to achieve such goals.

The most contentious obstacles appear in the form of international political agendas, which must be carefully calibrated lest they trigger discord on the ground. Other challenges lie in bridging the considerable cultural and institutional differences that divide civilian and military establishments. The difficulty is compounded by civilian organisations increasingly working alongside militaries of countries other than their own.

Efforts can be further hindered by well-intentioned government departments forced to work together in dangerous and difficult conditions. Aligning systems and bureaucracies across the civil service is a mighty challenge at the best of times, let alone amidst the fog of war.

Amidst this increasingly complex and ambitious landscape, the question becomes one of how best to align efforts to increase the effectiveness of international stabilisation missions?

International geo-politics play the trump card. Without concerted political will, any joint mission is doomed to failure. But for those on the ground, for whom foreign policy is well out of reach, the answer may be more personal.

Heroic efforts continue to be made in integrating structures, systems and strategies – a must when the alternative is half a dozen email systems that don’t talk to each other, or conflicting strategies that pit forces against each other.

But the real key to generating unity of effort lies in relationships. In the jungle of organisations, mandates and bureaucracies that increasingly define international stabilisation efforts, personalities matter a lot.

Working with populations affected by war to establish governance and tackle insecurity is extraordinarily complex. It is common – and necessary – for teams to be assembled from a rich mixture of organisations, nationality, language and skills. But they face extraordinary challenges: how to balance the need to use military power to quell an insurgency with the intent to build enduring relations with local populations? How best to work with warlords and local enforcers to secure the peace? When to mentor a government department through a complex reconstruction project, and when to use military assistance to deliver basic services? The tip of the iceberg reveals a relentless array of dilemmas that must be confronted daily.

Success in this multi-lateral environment takes outstanding people, equipped with first-rate skills and the rare talent to work together under extreme pressure. Their ability to forge relationships across sizeable cultural, ideological, religious, political and organisational differences is what forges unity under fire.

And thankfully, it isn’t being left to chance, for good fortune to bring good people of all ilk together. Enlightened organisations are embodying joined-up leadership, charting a joint and strategic direction while at the same time giving their people the space to lead on the ground.

Those in the thick of things should be encouraged by what is working in places like Helmand: building relationships and creating structures that deepen trust and build mutual accountability. The rewards lie in action that is more integrated and more likely to effect change.

It isn’t painless, quick, nor does it even guarantee success. But for international stabilisation missions such as that in Helmand, unity of effort is vital.