by Cameron Evers, The Week:
If the CIA had a crystal ball, then they would probably not be routinely blindsided by world events. Lacking such a device, the agency has endured notable analytical failures. During the early 1990s, sudden collapses of Somalia, Zaire, Rwanda, and the Soviet Union seemingly appeared without warning.
Strategic surprises have always been a problem for intelligence agencies. The material impossibility of having eyes everywhere requires making judgments without seeing a complete picture, let alone the future. Assessing the likeliness of future rare political events has had dubious reliability.
Thus, in 1994, the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence commissioned the Political Instability Task Force (PITF), formerly known as the State Failure Task Force, a clairvoyant-esque squad of social-scientist brainiacs charged with churning global political data into global instability forecasts.
The creation of the PITF began at end of the Cold War. The PITF’s mission is straightforward — make intelligence analysis as holistic as possible, and locate where the next crisis might be, and why.
“The collapse of the Soviet Union completely caught the government off guard. Their models didn’t capture that at all. [Their models] didn’t even accept it,” Monty Marshall, a senior consultant for the PITF and director of the Center for Systemic Peace told War Is Boring.
“The intelligence community was looking for alternative explanations,” he added. “The old way of thinking, wasn’t catching the new dynamics, trends, that don’t fit into the way they understand things.”
To meet this task, the team recruited from American academia and included leading political scientists, sociologists and methodologists. In the beginning, they focused on variables as broad as environmental degradation and social conflict. The focus later shifted to cover four main topics — revolutionary and ethnic civil war onset, adverse regime change, state collapse, and genocide.
PITF calculates each event’s chance of occurring with probabilistic forecasts from six months to two years out, in 167 countries, which the team monitors on a daily basis. Within every country, the PITF’s global model accounts for baseline political dynamics, and disruptions in patterns within these dynamics.
The results of the forecasts hold impressive heuristic accuracy. “[With] what this approach can do — probabilistic models — they’re stuck at about 80 percent accuracy. That’s good. That’s why we’re still around,” Marshall said.
In addition to accurate forecasting, the PITF’s reports inform the intelligence community and U.S. policymakers. According to Marshall, the PITF’s reports are used mainly for the National Intelligence Council’s annual intelligence estimates.
Interestingly, the relationship between military coups and civil wars are closer than previously thought. According to the PITF’s data, government officials will often resort to regime change as a tactic to prevent civil war from occurring.
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