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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Responsibility to Predict and Prevent

It is said that “there are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.” Most of the appalling events that happen in our personal or national life are attributed to failure to precisely foresee or accurately forecast all possible and probable scenarios that could he

lp to mitigate the potential risks. The most important role that a national intelligence apparatus has to perform is to always keep the national leadership equipped with timely intelligence for better decision making, which promise least unanticipated consequences. Therefore, to ‘predict and prevent’ a catastrophe should be the motto for any proud and efficient national intelligence service. To make good use of the provided timely and actionable intelligence picture is equally imperative for leadership responsible for national security and those responsible for decision making in geopolitical or geo-economics domains. For the policy makers, the limits of imagination create blind spots that they tend to fill in with past experience. They often assume that tomorrow’s dangers will look like yesterday’s, retaining the same mental map even if the territory around them changes dramatically. While people in Armed Forces being directly responsible for National Security are groomed systematically to develop and regularly update future threat scenarios, which take the shape of Hypothesis with variants; each demanding a range of responses to frustrate any external threat, the same appears to be missing in other dimensions of decision making at the state level. In order to fill that gap and to groom the policy makers, influencers and decision takers, National Defence University has been running National Security Courses for people in civvies from all walks of life since early 2000. However, for civil departments and ministries, the greatest hurdle to a clearer vision of the future still remains more to do with the organizational than philosophical side. The decision making in Pakistan remains “a day late and a dollar short”. The lack of foresight and inability to forecast and take timely and right decisions in the political, economic, law and justice, religious, health, education, agriculture, food security, sports and culture fields has cost Pakistan too dearly. The political mayhem that commenced soon after the passing away of the father of the nation in 1948 continues till to date in one form or the other, which also led to the disaster of 1971. The unrelenting poor law and order, importunate subversion and sabotage, ever burgeoning security threats, compelling foreign policy challenges, weak and turbulent economy, frequent food, water and energy crises, undue inflation, unenviable health and education standards, complex sectarian spread, rampant corruption, wayward and obscene practices replacing proud cultural values, and dismal performance in the fields of sport….all trace back their roots to the above stated failure to accurately forecast or to predict and prevent. The reverse of “a stitch in time saves nine” is unfortunately true for Pakistan. The worst part is the ignorance or the willful neglect of the brass tacks of such self destructive malfunctions that continue to haunt our people. The tendency to think through the shoulders or according to the pay grade mostly results in half-cocked decision making, which in turn gives birth to a complacent environment at the middle and lower rungs of the government. It is said that ‘the most reliable way to forecast the future is to try to understand the present’. Therefore, to be valuable, any dream of the future has to be based on the decisions made in the present. As said earlier, the greatest barrier to a clearer vision of the future is not philosophical but organizational: the potential of combining scenario planning with probabilistic forecasting means nothing if it is not implemented. The intelligence community all over the world uses various techniques and methods including sophisticated use of latest technologies, human as well as Artificial Intelligence, modern templates, social media, cyber and even outer spaces to gather pieces of information to translate it into workable intelligence that forms the foundation for probabilistic scenario formulation. Any national decision made without accurate forecasting runs higher risks of failure that is less likely to be managed by mere application of bureaucratic risk management techniques. Yet, ironically it has remained a common practice in Pakistan that has virtually become a plague continually afflicting our country. Therefore, it is imperative that our policymakers and all consumers of intelligence must understand the significance of forecasts and incorporate them into their decisions to avoid undue firefighting all the time. I am conscious of the fact that such curious thinking is often confronted with curt comment “who will bell the cat?”, therefore few thoughts on that. Scholars and practitioners often claim that scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting are incompatible given their different assumptions and goals. In fact, they fit together well. A scenario planner’s conviction that the future is uncertain need not clash with a forecaster’s quest to translate uncertainty into risk. Rather, the challenge lies in understanding the limits of each method. A practice of using question clusters make it possible to leverage the strength of each approach, transforming the abstract long term into the concrete short term so that leaders can understand the future quickly and act to stave off danger, seize opportunity, and strengthen national security. With my domestic and international experience of seeing the functioning of intelligence community, my broad but specific recommendation is that Pakistan national intelligence service (ISI) has to recruit a well blended mix of highly qualified subject specialists as well as experienced intelligence specialists, who should be organized as dedicated small teams to develop short, mid and long term forecasts based on clusters of questions that shall act as lamp posts along the path to realization of a distant scenarios for all the above stated national fields. As a result, the persuasiveness of a particular narrative will not tempt decision-makers into mistaking plausibility for probability. Instead, preliminary answers to specific questions can provide a simple metric for judging in advance how the future is most likely to unfold—a metric that analysts can then refine once the event in question takes place or not. The monthly, quarterly and annual intelligence briefs supplementing, modifying or ruling out the projected forecasts must be presented to the decision makers and after due deliberations at the forum of the National Security Council headed by the prime minister, must be communicated to the concerned ministries for timely implementation of Government directives. As soon as a basic organization to do the said job comes into existence, natural evolution will gradually shape it up to be a smart and efficient outfit within the Inter Service Intelligence setup that has the wherewithal to join the dots at the macro levels in all fields. The Government of Pakistan must cultivate the cognitive habits of top forecasters throughout their organizations, while also institutionalizing the imaginative processes of scenario planners. The country’s prosperity, its security, and, ultimately, its power all depend on policymakers’ ability to envision long-term futures, anticipate short-term developments, and use both projections to inform everything from the budget to grand strategy. Needless to say that shortsightedness harms our national future beyond measure. Conversely, the advantages of being able to put realistic odds on possible futures are obvious. After all, how long people of Pakistan will continue to hear that the ‘weather forecast for tonight is dark’.

16 November 2020

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