The three crises

Mosharraf Zaidi
Pakistans political figures - Global Village Space
Pakistan's political figures - Global Village Space

We can fight terrorism through superior counterintelligence and next-generation offensive capability. We can fight climate change through carbon offsets, redoubling investments in renewables and transitioning consumption patterns. We can even fight corruption, through automated, transparent procurement processes, whistle-blower protections and better designed mutual legal assistance regimes. But how do we fight ferocious unrelenting stupidity?

This is a challenge that behavioural scientists have been conscious of since the 1970s. But because of the insidious and mystical character of cognitive bias, those most in need of consciousness often lack it the most. So let me begin with the most obvious candidate in need of some setting straight on being straight up wrong: me.

The July 17 by-election may feel like a long time ago, but it was barely a week ago. Its recency should be a source of great humility for many. My analysis of the July 17 by-election was spectacularly wrong. Not wrong by one or two seats. Not even wrong by five or six. My analysis of what was likely to happen in terms of the results of the by-election was wrong by a full 180 degrees. I had expected the PML-N to comfortably trounce the PTI. Instead, the literal opposite happened. Now, given the privileged position I hold in this newspaper, and as a result, across many TV screens, and on social media, this is not just a spectacular failure. It is a spectacular failure on a grand stage. So, what the hell happened?

In simple terms, I had bad analysis because I consumed bad information, and I consumed bad information because I have blind spots and biases that made me vulnerable to do two things simultaneously. First, I accepted bad information from sources I believe to be credible. The sources may well be credible, but on this occasion, their information was just ‘bad’! Second, I did not accept good information from sources I don’t believe to be credible – partly because that information was pointing in the opposite direction to what I ‘felt’ to be ‘better’ information. What a mess!

The problem here is multi-layered, but it is one that so-called experts and analysts have been experiencing more and more in the last decade or so. And the response of most ‘experts’ is not to write detailed post-mortems of what they got wrong and how. The response of most people (including ‘experts’) when they get something wrong is to double down, and find ways to validate what is, essentially, unvalidatable. Sometimes, and in fact, according to students of cognitive bias, most of the time, the more you know about something, the easier it should be to admit and track your mistakes. To do anything less would be spectacularly stupid. Enter the Dunning Kruger Effect.

In 1999, Justin Kruger (then, a graduate student) and David Dunning wrote a seminal paper that, in Dunning’s own words, “documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize – scratch that, cannot recognize – just how incompetent they are”. This cognitive bias has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Something similar has been going on in Pakistani governance for most of the seven and a half decades that the country has been in existence. Is there a way out? If for the answer, we are to turn to the same people that have been in charge since the beginning, then we should prepare not just for more Dunning-Kruger Effects, but also for some Freddie Kruger outcomes too.

Three kinds of crises are in effect right now: economic, political and security.

Economically, Pakistan may have to default on some of its external debt obligations – a red line that appears closer than it is, but whose threat should prompt national consensus on some key economics, finance and banking issues. Sadly, it won’t.

Politically, there is a dangerous political divide that can only be resolved through the kind of dialogue that Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto designed and led through the process that eventually delivered the 2006 Charter of Democracy and the wider set of political same-pages that have fuelled Pakistani governance since then. It does not appear that Imran Khan is capable of such dialogue, nor does it appear that he can afford engaging in it. His brand and the excitement it generates is about destroying the existing order, and replacing it with hyperventilating YouTube channel paeans to selective anti-corruption and misplaced muscular nationalism. Foaming at the mouth won’t resolve serious constitutional weaknesses in a country of 234 million. It never does.

National security is under greater stress today than at any point since the change of guard at GHQ in November 2016. Despite sincere efforts by the post-2016 regime to de-escalate with India, to build confidence in Tehran and to normalize the Taliban, all three critical fronts for Pakistan are more dangerous, more duplicitous and more threatening than they were six years ago.

India has attacked Pakistan (Balakot 2019), undermined international law and numerous mutual agreements on Kashmir (August 5, 2019) and conducted a relentless diplomatic offensive to try to undermine Pakistan’s partnerships with key Western nations (helped in part by Imran Khan’s uncontrollable verbal diarrhoea).

Iran has not managed to put an end to its patronage of revisionist propaganda, which has seen recruitment of Pakistanis in various violent campaigns abroad.

Afghanistan has proven that it is Afghanistan, and whether Republican or Talibanish, the country will seek and sustain cross border influence in Pakistan by any means necessary. Pakistan’s limited options certainly made choosing the Taliban a no-brainer. But no brains over three decades leads to no good outcomes.

What Pakistan requires right now is a large-tent national dialogue that tackles these three challenges at the same time. But the history of the post-2016 regime is now so clear that any room for optimism about the likelihood of such a dialogue would have to be the product of Pakistani Dunning-Krugerism. One must be stupid to believe that a dog with only three legs can perform tricks that require four.

We have known since early 2017 that the military high command wants economic stability. This was the result of discovering the so-called unsustainability of the debt profile and exchange rate policies of the Dar regime. The ‘charter for economy’ noise that now-prime minister Shehbaz Sharif talked of during the early days of his turn as the leader of the opposition also came straight out of Pindi signalling the need for the same. But six years into the era of the Bajwa doctrine and there is, instead of consensus, an economic catastrophe facing us straight in the face. What lessons can be learnt from these experiences? These are questions for the military to examine and deliberate upon. In a normal country, they would be debated openly.

The political crisis is one of the making of the same high command. No one had ever coddled Imran Khan the way the military has since 2018. Having experienced the delicate motherly touch of the security establishment, Khan and his followers have no interest in the fatherly discipline that some in Pindi want the PTI to bend to. A national dialogue, grand or petty, is almost impossible if the most popular boy in school won’t even look at you. Oops.

The security crisis is metastasizing every day. Even a complete surrender to the TTP or the BLA won’t actually solve the problem. The reason is simple. Pakistani national security was built to survive India – and it has delivered. But that second-generation capability was then repurposed, on the fly, to fight terrorists, and somehow it delivered there too. Instead of learning what worked and what didn’t, the entire focus of the security establishment’s attention then turned on so-called ‘domestic enemies’. The Sharifs and Zardaris have been in that doghouse for decades. But in the last four months, Imran Khan has entered the chat too.

It seems like we keep giving the same answer, over and over and over again.

If we ask Justin Kruger or David Dunning as to why this keeps happening, their answer, just like ours, won’t change.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Originally published in The News