Futurist Jamais Cascio on strategic forecasting:
….”Asking the Question” is the first step in a formal futures thinking project. At first glance, it should be easy–after all, you should know what you’re trying to figure out. Unfortunately, while it may be simple to ask a question, asking the right question is much more challenging It’s easy to ask questions that are too vague, too narrow, or assume the answer; it’s much more difficult to ask a question that can elicit both surprises and useful results.
….It’s a subtle point, but I tend to find it useful to talk about strategic questions in terms of dilemmas, not problems. Problem implies solution–a fix that resolves the question. Dilemmas are more difficult, typically situations where there are no clearly preferable outcomes (or where each likely outcome carries with it some difficult contingent elements). Futures thinking is less useful when trying to come up with a clear single answer to a particular problem, but can be extremely helpful when trying to determine the best response to a dilemma. The difference is that the “best response” may vary depending upon still-unresolved circumstances; futures thinking helps to illuminate possible trigger points for making a decision.
Cascio’s framing of dilemmas is reminiscient of a discussion I had here a while back with Dave Schuler regarding “wicked problems” though dilemmas appear to be more generic a class of difficulties ( all dilemmas are not wicked problems but all wicked problems represent a dilemma). There is a lot of merit to the frame that Cascio is using and it points to the dysfunctionality present in top tier national security decision making.
Pakistan, for example, represents a serious dilemma for the United States.We need to begin, as Cascio suggests, by framing the right questions. A better question than “Is Pakistan an ally?” would be “Is Pakistan our enemy?”
Islamabad is a major state sponsor of terrorist groups, perhaps the largest on earth in that regard. It has a poor record – again one of the world’s worst – on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear security issues. Pakistan’s civilian elite is amazingly corrupt and it’s thoroughly undemocratic senior officer corps of the Army only moderately less so. Pakistani public opinion borders on delusional with any issue tangentially connected to India and in the main, informed Pakistanis deeply resent it when their own policies of sponsoring terrorism cause other countries to become angry with Pakistan and take any kind of retaliatory action. It’s political system is polarized and unstable.
Yet while Pakistan is deeply hostile to America and cannot “be bought”, their deep corruption means that they can be “rented”. Pakistan is the major and irreplaceable conduit for supplies to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military will grudgingly cooperate in providing intelligence for drone attackson the militant terror groups that the ISI aids, directs and trains. Pakistan is ready to sacrifice many pawns but not any chesspiece of significance.
The American elite tend to speak of Pakistan as an “ally”, when the reality is that Pakistan is a sullen and coerced client, and to profess great concern about Pakistan’s “stability. This falsehood permits the illusion of “partnership” with Pakistan and makes it politically easier for the administration of the day to secure appropriations from the Congress for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, this facade creates a mental fog of unwarranted reassurance when clarity is most needed to assess our strategic choices and make any of them with decisiveness. A permanent preference for “muddling through” and crisis management has taken root.
Pakistan’s elite by contrast, tell visiting Secretaries of State how much they hate America and continue to endorse aiding the very violent Islamist groups that are eating away at the authority and legitmacy of the Pakistani state like a horde of termites. The elite regularly exercises its far smaller degree of national power with infinitely greater ruthlessness than its American counterparts, not appearing to care all that much about “stability”. The Pakistanis are willing to play hardball yet the USG shrinks from doing so.
Something does not compute here and that something is us.
Tom Barnett views Karzai as an even worse strategic bet than dealing with Pakistan ( but also thinks our diplomatic play is hamfisted and obtuse), saying the Obama administration should “take advantage of this fiasco“.