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 help 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.

While people in the armed forces—directly responsible for national security—are groomed systematically to develop and regularly update future threat scenarios, which take the shape of hypotheses 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 policymakers, influencers and decision takers, National Defence University has been running courses on national security for civilians 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 organisational 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.

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 organisational: 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, a 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.

With my domestic and international experience of seeing the intelligence community function, my broad but specific recommendation is that Pakistan’s 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 organised 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 realisation of distant scenarios. 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 Government of Pakistan must cultivate the cognitive habits of top forecasters throughout their organisations, while also institutionalising 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 short-sightedness 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 will the people of Pakistan continue to hear that the ‘weather forecast for tonight is dark’?