zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Strategy, Dilemmas and Choices

Strategy, Dilemmas and Choices

Futurist Jamais Cascio on strategic forecasting:

Futures Thinking: Asking the Question

….”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“.

16 Responses to “Strategy, Dilemmas and Choices”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    The very word "Pakistan" should be put in scare-quotes.  It is probably not a sufficiently unitary actor to be dealt with as a single bargaining agent.  Its sub-parts have lives and minds and secrets and agendas of their own — and we should probably be trying to identify and work with or work against these sub-parts.  Whether the USA has the capability to wade that deeply into the weeds is not something I have any knowledge of.  I hope so, but it is usually turns out that things that it seems obvious that the government ought to be doing are not being done. 

  2. zen Says:

    Probably, yes on the scare quotes. Pakistan’s birth welded together very different peoples who had in common Islam and a fear of Hindu domination. Several sections are tribal and much of Pakistan was desperately poor. Not a great basis for a modern state and the glue was the Anglophiliac officer corps that is turning Islamist from the bottom up.

  3. Joseph Fouche Says:

    If the solution to the dilemma or wicked problem that is "Pakistan" involves nuance, subtlety, ability to work without publicity, deftness, a light touch, strategic imagination, or skill at Oriental intrigue, then this country has already lost.

    If the solution involves either hugging Pakistan with the full ferocity of unconditional American love or hitting it repeatedly over the head with a blunt instrument until it surrenders, then you’re on the way to a solution.

    We have met the enemy and it is us.

  4. TMLutas Says:

    We lack an institutional capability to deal with fake states. If we were to develop that, Pakistan would be a cinch. What does an american method for dealing with fake states look like? That might be a better question. It would be something convenient for us, that US public opinion could understand. It would also be more honest and genuine, something that would be uncomfortable for the people interested in promoting the false image of these fake states. 

  5. Steve Metz Says:

    I like your phrase, "sullen and coerced client."  I’m writing an article called "The Trouble With Allies" for World Affairs and may quote that.

  6. J. Scott Says:

    TMLuta, I tend to agree with your assessment and would take it further. From an institutional perspective the American government has a terrible record of communicating to voters and the world the end game—except in flowery diplomatic language that means nothing to most. US public opinion cannot be gained without clarity of mission; clarity dispels ambiguity, and when the CINC can’t explain the "why’s" to the very people volunteering to shed blood, there should be little surprise that reluctance is the end result. The inertia of public opinion is turning against our enterprises in the Afghan/Paki region because no one (this includes the last administration) has stated clearly the mission and the means in terms of victory—btw, all those must have the backing of real resources, not threats and apparent waffling on strategy. If this were an OODA exercise, my guess is we’re still in the "observe" stage—the action on the ground is to be commended by our troops across the border, but our enemies smell weakness and indecision—and in a fight that guy is playing catch-up to the one with initiative.Bob Kaplan in his Warrior Politics work predicted (hope I’m recalling the right book) that the American people would need a strong stomach for the war on terror—to strengthen their resolve they need clarity and they need a vision with integrity that is credible—rhetoric, even flowery rhetoric means nothing when the enemy is determined more to destroy/discredit you, than you him. As a disclaimer: strateegery in this arena is not an area of expertise, and these comments reflect my gut…Good post!

  7. zen Says:

    Hey Gents,
    Big Steve,
    That would be excellent, quote away! BTW John Lewis Gaddis had a concise summary of the past half-century of noncompliant client state behavior in his last book, The Cold War: A New History. Some nice examples of ingratitude/tail wagging the dog.
    Joseph Fouche,
    I agree that our statecraft has long since lost the capacity for skillful intrigue or even, at times, perceptive assessment of long term interests. That capacity requires officials who have a certain mindset of advancing the national interest, long term service in particular slots to acquire the requisite experience and a possession of a high degree of trust within both the domestic political system and within the society of states. We rarely have officials anywhere in the USG who have that kind of tenure, with Robert Gates being the only example that comes to mind and in general, we need lower level figures who do day to day work of this kind.
    I would also add "cheap" or at least, more "efficient". We need to better correlate the costs with the actual value of what what are doing.
    "the American people would need a strong stomach for the war on terror—to strengthen their resolve they need clarity and they need a vision with integrity that is credible—"
    Well said.

  8. demcoratic core Says:

    While Pakistan has some aspects of a "fake state", it is much less of a fake state than say Afghanistan or Yugoslavia.  The overwhelming majority of the population is comprised of Punjabis and Sindhis, who control the government and the military, and while these groups have differences, there has never been much suggestion of a civil war between them.  It is certainly conceivable to think of a confederation of Punjabis and Sindhis that would be relatively democratic and that would be a good addition to globalization’s "core" (to use the Barnett terminology).  The more troublesome groups are the Pashtun and the Balochis, but the Balochis are far too few to be a very significant factor in Pakistan’s politics, and the problem with the Pashtun is that they were artificially divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan (gotta love the Brits).  I keep coming back to the similarities between the national psychologies of Pakistan and Israel – both are obsessed with fears of encirclement by religious rivals.  They both need to wake up – they’ve got nukes, they aren’t facing existential threats, and they should be more bold about jumping into globalization’s world.  I think the only way for the US to deal with Pakistan is (1) strengthen our ties to India and China so Pakistan understands that we’re not going to humor their paranoia; (2) keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan only more so, so as to force the Pakistan military to take on Pashtun religious extremists (e.g. the Taliban), which will ultimately give rise to a faction among the Pashtun that can be made to fit into globalization’s world.

  9. demcoratic core Says:

    I think you misconstrued Barnett’s comment.  He said that he would take advantage of this fiasco and push for a shift to Pakistan "if" he was advising Obama to shrink our effort in Afghanistan.  I think would have been clearer if Barnett had used the subjunctive, but I think he was talking about how folks like Biden are likely to use this turn of events, not necessarily what Barnett himself would advise.  The fiasco happened when a decision was made to go ahead with the elections in August, instead of postponing them until some security could be achieved.  Better to get this over with rather than proceeding with the agony of a run-off; a coalition between Karzai and Abdullah wouldn’t be any better since it would just fortify the perception of the government as the Northern Alliance with virtually no Pashtun participation.

  10. onparkstreet Says:

    Well, Pakistan (or elements, thereof) is all about strategic depth, re: India.
    So, what’s our strategic depth, re: South Asia? I’d go with what democratic core says above (India, China). Also, why are we always so binary in our thinking? There are elements that are sort of an ally, and elements that are definitely not, and it’s all mixed-up, and the answer is simultaneously yes, no, maybe and ‘who knows’ to the ally question! I’d say South Asia does not benefit from binary thinking, or so it seems to me, as a member of the Indian diaspora, which kind of means nothing, really. It just makes you feel, superficially, as if you know the place.
    Also, and I said this at Abu M, Pakistan’s about as stable as a spinning top, so pushing on it only moves the spinning top in unpredictable directions. The right and left, both, approach the subcontinent with a certain amount of magical thinking. It’s disheartening.
    So, yeah, basically I have no idea what to do about Pakistan. Except, how about, encircle it! Afghanistan, China and India! Oh, I dunno.

    – Madhu

  11. Ed Beakley Says:

    Interesting in this "wicked" dilemma context:

    The Shadow Course of Action or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NSC-68 By Jeremy Kotkin Major, United States Army (http://www.d-n-i.net/dni/2009/10/21/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-nsc-68/)… Rather than “CT+” or “COIN+,” U.S. policy and subsequent strategy for the 21st century should be “Containment+.”… While the deliberation over COIN tactics and enemy networks and leadership have been paramount to current policy discussions, a refocus on sound strategy is urgently important. Not a new window dressing or rearranging of deck chairs; a new understanding of the limitations of current plans and the strategic framework wherein they nest; a reassessment of what are vital national interests which demand different types of implementations of national power.

    Obama and the U.S. Strategy of Buying Time, By George Friedman at STRATFOR (http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20091102_obama_and_us_strategy_buying_time?utm_source=GWeekly&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=091102&utm_content=readmore)… But the Romans and the British lost that option when they achieved the key to their own national security: enough power to protect the homeland. Outsiders inevitably came to see that power as offensive, even though originally its possessors intended it as defensive. Indeed, intent aside, the capability for offensive power was there. So frequently, Rome and Britain threatened the interests of foreign powers simply by being there … The elephant in the room cannot stop being an elephant, nor can the smaller animals ignore him. No matter how courteous the elephant, it is his power — his capabilities — not his intentions that matter.

  12. Larry Dunbar Says:

    No, Pakistan is not our enemy. The enemy is behind the leader and not in front of the leader. Pakistan is in front of our leaders. For that matter, Afghanistan is in front of our leaders. Our leaders are being played by the Afghan guys. The country has a bunch of nothing until the invader guys move in. Then bunches of resources finds its way into Afghanistan, and ultimately into the hands of the guys running Afghanistan. This has been true for thousands of years and is behind much of the strategy of Pakistan. Afghanistan is a big sinkhole, where resources go in, only to die, but not quickly. It happens in generations—suddenly the hole opens up and that generation is gone. Anyone moving into Pakistan would disappear inside Afghanistan first.

    Those in front of the leader are the potential energy of a displacement of energy. They are the force vector that "charges" those behind the leader. In the case of the US, we are putting that charge on the Asians. Afghanistan is, after all, in Asia? *Madhu mentions some Asians: Afghanistan, China, and India, but forgot about Iran, which is telling. I guess McCrystal’s question might be:  just who do I hand it off to, unless he doesn’t know what he is talking about? 

  13. onparkstreet Says:

    Ooh, you’re right, it is telling I didn’t mention Iran! Hmm…
    I agree with your point about ‘sink holes’ and being gamed, but I don’t understand your first sentence/s about being in front of the leader? If you are being gamed, why is that person your friend or ally? Which is not the same as enemy, I know, but I’m still confused? What am I not getting?


    – Madhu

  14. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "but I don’t understand your first sentence/s about being in front of the leader?"


    I used the term "in front" to mean two different things. The first reference was more explicit position as in "leader of a group"; the second reference was about one person being implicitly ahead of another, perhaps in a game.


    I think it was Nicholas Wapshott, the author of the new book, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, that said Reagan knew that the enemy is in front of the leader, not behind.  * The leader has force of command, and mainly uses that force against those behind him/her. Those with velocity of control are behind the leader and together with the leader, create the logic of the system.  In warfare, one system is putting a force on another system, but the force either side is able to produce depends on the force the leader is able to put on those in control of the velocity of the movement to either generate diversity or enforce conformity.  


    Power is energy per second, which is the resource’s a country is able to command and control at any moment in time. When those in power are unable to command and control resources anymore, the war is over.

  15. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "that said Reagan knew that the enemy is in front of the leader, not behind. "


    Ya, I worded that back ass-ward. He said, "Reagan knew the enemy is behind the leader and not in front."

  16. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Of course Zen could tell us about historical enemies and we can compare their relationships with Pakistan’s and the USA’s. *  In the book about the rise of Xenophone, for instance, the Sparta King was an obvious enemy to the King of Persia. The King of Persia, by his own doings, or perhaps more accurate his un-doing, entered Greece’s Observation, or other words, its environment.  An environment that had Oriented itself around Greece, more accurately Sparta. Sparta had just destroyed Athens, Generationally. This should have given the King of Persia great concern, he should have raised son or daughters aware of Greece, if he knew about it. If the King of Persia didn’t understand how Sparta fought, and only Observed a technological superior military, he would have had very little to worry about. He had plenty of people between him and Sparta, let them come. And, in a way, he was right. Keeping his own kin from killing him should have occupied much of his thoughts, he ruled like a tyrant, without any vision, at least that is my definition of a tyrant.

Switch to our mobile site