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Predictions are not easy

In December 2000 the CIA’s National Intelligence Council produced a document that predicted what the world might look like in 2015. It contained some very trenchant forecasts about Pakistan which, at the time, provoked howls of protests from the Pakistani establishment.

Complaining that the report was alarmist and ill-motivated, many Pakistanis demanded that the US government disown the document. Others complained that it revealed a secret US desire to dismember Pakistan. US officials countered that the forecast was the result of a collaborative effort in which many non-government experts had participated and that it would be a mistake to confuse a prediction with desiring an outcome.

So now that we have reached 2015 what did the National Intelligence Council predict all those years ago? And how have those predictions have fared? Pakistan, the report stated, “will not recover easily from decades of political and economic mismanagement, divisive politics, lawlessness, corruption and ethnic friction. Nascent democratic reforms will produce little change in the face of opposition from an entrenched political elite and radical Islamic parties.”

Not bad so far. “Pakistan will be more fractious, isolated, and dependent on international financial assistance.” Who, as the aid continues to flow in, could deny that? “Both India and Pakistan will see weapons of mass destruction as a strategic imperative and will continue to amass nuclear warheads and build a variety of missile delivery systems.”

Correct but hardly a bold prediction. Admittedly Pakistan did make some early statements after the 1998 tests about how, having achieved minimum deterrence, it would not seek to expand its nuclear arsenal. But no one really believed them so the CIA gets few marks on this one. “Further domestic decline would benefit Islamic political activists, who may significantly increase their role in national politics and alter the makeup and cohesion of the military, once Pakistan’s most capable institution.”

Certainly domestic decline has benefitted the Islamists but has it undermined the cohesion of the military? There have been plots from within the armed forces trying to kill successive army chiefs and a few soldiers have defected to the Taliban. So the CIA wasn’t too wide of the mark. At the same time the Americans were not quite right on this. The army remains an effective, cohesive force. And then the prediction that really got everyone riled: “In a climate of continuing domestic turmoil the central government’s control will probably be reduced to the Punjabi heartland and the economic hub of Karachi.”

By mid-2007, halfway into the 15-year period covered by the report, the government in Islamabad had lost control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan, and significant parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. So the CIA seemed to be on track to getting a remarkably outlandish prediction right. But it failed to see that by 2015 much of the territory that had been lost would be retaken. Let’s call this one a draw. As for regional politics the CIA forecast that: “the widening strategic and economic gaps between the two principal powers, India and Pakistan – and the dynamic interplay between their mutual hostility and the instability in Central Asia – will define the South Asia region in 2015.”

Again, not bad. Just think back to the sense of relief that swept through last November’s Saarc summit when Modi and Sharif shook hands. The report also looked forward to what might be happening in India in 2015. And it made a pretty good job of it.

“Indian democracy will remain strong, albeit more factionalized by the secular-Hindu nationalist debate, growing differentials among regions and the increase in competitive party politics. India’s economy, long repressed by the heavy hand of regulation, is likely to achieve sustained growth to the degree reforms are implemented…Despite rapid economic growth, more than half a billion Indians will remain in dire poverty.”

Most fair-minded Pakistanis would accept that, for all the complaints at the time, the CIA’s predictions fared surprising well and certainly better than most Pakistanis would have expected in 2000. And with that in mind, they might want to consider the US intelligence community’s predictions for 2030.

In their 2030 report the US authorities used heavily qualified language that means almost whatever happens they will be able to claim they were proved right. There are few clear predictions and no bold ones.

But there is some good news for Pakistan: “the global power of a group of 11 countries – Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Turkey, and Vietnam – would overtake the European Union by 2030.” However, authors of the report stipulate that such a scenario would need sustained good governance and tax reforms in Pakistan. There is no sign of either.

Predictions are not easy. Generally speaking the more data gathered and the nearer the event, the better the prediction. For example, the number of state-wide polls conducted in the US means that two or three weeks before an election, psephologists such as Nate Silver and Professor Sam Wang of Princeton University can now forecast the results with a high degree of confidence. Trying to work out what will be happening in 15 years and on a far broader canvas is a very different proposition. But for all the complaints there’s no denying it. Back in 2000 the CIA made some audacious, accurate predictions.

The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.  Email: bennettjones@hotmail.com, Twitter: @OwenBennettJone

Owen Bennett-Jones, "Predictions are not easy," The News. 2015-01-06.
Keywords: Economics , Economic relations , International relations , International issues , Economic issues , Religious groups , Government-United States , Economic growth , Economy-India , Taliban , Politics , Poverty , Prof. Sam Wang , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Afghanistan , United States , Pakistan , Balochistan , Bangladesh , Egypt , Karachi , India , CIA