Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a must-read for students of crisis management. It shows a brilliant mind at work to resolve one of the most dangerous crises of the Cold War era. It is also compulsory reading for those who want to see how much the United States and Cuba have evolved to make today’s rapprochement possible. One important component of crisis management is contingency planning. When we were taught contingency planning, we were surprised to learn about the presence of a character called ‘the devil’s advocate’ in every committee tasked with planning contingencies. Sadly, this has nothing to do with the movie featuring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. The job of this character is trying to find fault with every given strategy. While this role sounds quite pertinent as our media’s second nature — not to mention a national character — it is not. If you look carefully, it is a position of critical importance because it brings to fore plans of action and at times their unintended consequences.
In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series psychohistorian, Hari Seldon foresees a 30,000-year-long breakdown of civilisation in the galactic empire and comes up with ways to reduce the period to a millennium. By creating two foundations as the galactic nuclei, he provides a means to accomplish the goal. Planning ahead can often help you overcome the unintended consequences of your own policies as well as those of others. However, to do that, you need a dispassionate study of history and access to data that individual or group egos tend to obscure. The problem with decision-making and planning for the future in this country is that of the dearth of documented history and data to shed light on the circumstances and concerns that lead to a particular policy decision. Leaders fearing that such a record may come back to haunt them usually don’t let such things be documented. Given this country’s history, that is a valid concern. However, while it is the state’s job to ensure such confidential information, it is not used to settle petty political or personal scores. But it is imperative to maintain record of each momentous decision. Another problem in this regard is that of archiving and putting together the numbers. We do have high-sounding institutions like the National Archives of Pakistan. But if you want to know exactly how technology savvy such institutions are, just visit the official website of national archives (nap.gov.pk).
Planning for a better future requires a true assessment of probable threats to the projects; not your casual tea leaves or tarot cards or blind speculations sans the scientific assessment of things. Is it too much to expect government departments and think tanks tasked with implementing various projects to employ a few experts in actuarial sciences? I think not. If you do employ people with such skills, they can easily tell you what the chinks in your armour are and how to fix them.
I say this because there are things we have done in the past that have later caused a lot of pain. Take matters of national security and foreign policy for instance. Despite being overly sceptical, we do understand that every foreign policy decision made, no matter how devastating, had some justification behind it. Take the Afghan Jihad for instance. What do you do when a superpower sits in your backyard and seems to be in the mood for implementing Peter the Great’s will? You use everything you have got to defeat it. Could we avoid the use of religion in this struggle? Apparently not, given the Pakhtunistan controversy and Pakistan’s experience of the Afghan nationalists. Could we then have realised that this religious mix would eventually explode in our faces and kill over 50,000 Pakistanis? Maybe not. Had we known, we would have drawn up a plan to dismantle the entire project immediately after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Yes, people who drew up the early plans all exploded in a plane crash. But that is why you need to rely on the processes and the paper trail rather than on an individual’s thoughts. So we need to think things through.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2015.
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