Key Factors Affecting Black Swans and Gray Rhinos in the USCENTCOM AOR

July 2020 No Comments

Authors | Editors: Kuznar, L. (NSI, Inc.); Kuznar, E. (NSI, Inc.)

Executive Summary

NSI, Inc. interviewed seven subject matter experts and conducted additional background research in support of its analyses on Black Swans, Gray Rhinos, and current thinking about key factors and variables not typically included in political stability models (e.g., climate variables, the influence of illicit networks). The main topics of focus included water and food availability, sectarianism (ethnic and religious), refugee flows, illicit drug networks, illicit antiquities trade, and human trafficking. Summarized findings relating to each of these topics are presented in detail below.

Water and Food Availability

  • The USCENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR) is largely dependent on groundwater resources, which are finite and dwindling. This is a looming threat because, as the region, especially the Middle East, runs out of water, the population will come under stress and may be forced to emigrate.
  • Surface water is also in jeopardy due to decreasing rainfall. Furthermore, it is controlled by relatively few states in the Middle East and Central Asia, creating the potential for interstate conflict over this life-essential resource.
  • The Middle East is dependent on foods and goods produced in other regions (particularly Eurasia and China). Many of these resources require continued access to water for sustained production. Therefore, droughts in these regions that impact food production levels will also have a profound impact on food insecurity and instability in the Middle East.
  • A Black Swan-like danger is that when food and water availability cross critical thresholds, weak governance in the region may not be able to compensate, which could lead to rapid regime collapse and instability.
  • The greatest potential for sudden, Black Swan-like effects is in the interactions between water availability, climate change, economic growth, urbanization, and population growth. Unit changes in these variables are multiplied, producing amplified effects on instability.


  • Religious and ethnic sectarianism is important in the region. However, these identities are not immutable and written in stone.
  • Sectarianism rose after the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, which alarmed Sunni Arab states in the region and intensified the Sunni/Shia Muslim division. Within Iraq, the US invasion in 2003, increased Sunni/Shia sectarianism within the country as those factions vied for power. However, the ethnic orders established in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries may be weakening as their governments have failed to serve their own ethnic constituencies.
  • A new generational division appears to be emerging between a disaffected younger population and the ethnically-based establishment.
  • Sectarian divides exist but are not necessarily always salient and should not be assumed as such. They become active when elites use them to mobilize support in bids for power. Extremists will also try to mobilize support along sectarian lines.
  • However, power typically flows upward from local strongmen and elites who serve as patrons for local followings. Those local leaders similarly gain benefits and serve provincial leaders, and so forth to national leaders. These power relations do not necessarily follow sectarian lines.
  • The dynamics of these power relations can be different from country to country.
  • Outside powers exert powerful influences as well; however, they do not always do so to their own benefit. Russian and Chinese ethnocentrism is manifest in different ways. Central Asians are dependent on remittances from labor in Russia but resent the discrimination they experience when working there. The Russian government appears to regard Central Asia as a region it could take back if it wanted to, which is probably a delusion. China tends to look down on non-Han, and while its investments are welcome in cash-strapped Central Asian states, China’s condescension, predatory loaning practices, and unfair labor practices may eventually create a serious backlash.
  • The dependency of Central Asians on remittances from Russia means that political or economic instability in Russia is likely to have a ripple effect on Central Asia.

Refugee Flows

  • Refugees are a destabilizing factor in the Middle East. Iran also houses millions of Afghan refugees.
  • Countries that house large refugee populations are burdened and potentially destabilized, but they can also use them as political pawns by threatening to send them home or unleash them on other regions of the world.
  • The water availability crisis in the region may ultimately cause mass migrations from the region if food availability and quality of life become no longer tenable. This is especially the case if regional governments are unable to cope with the effects of water and food vulnerability.


  • Illicit drug manufacturers and traffickers benefit from insecurity, and places like Syria and Afghanistan have attracted drug trafficking as a result. However, there is a reciprocal effect in that drug trafficking increases corruption and instability in these very states, creating a spiraling positive feedback loop of increasing drug trafficking and instability.
  • Terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah (with Captagon), the Taliban (with opium), and ISIS (with Tramadol and nicotine) have benefitted from the instability they have sown and have been able to partially fund their operations through the illicit trade.
  • The proliferation of the drug trade in the Middle East and Central Asia has led to extremely high drug abuse rates, taxing health care systems and damaging societies throughout the region.

Illicit Antiquities

  • Political insecurity increases the looting of antiquities. Locals may opportunistically loot as law enforcement and antiquity site protection becomes diminished or insufficient, and terrorist groups may strategically loot to fund their operations and denigrate their enemies by destroying sacred sites.
  • Because re-establishing security in unstable regions is difficult, the most effective way of preventing illegal antiquities trade and denying terrorists this income may be to target wealthy buyers in the West who make online purchases with near impunity.

Human Trafficking

  • Human trafficking in the Middle East is often used to coerce labor and force women into prostitution and sexual slavery. This adds to the burden of grievances that fuel unrest in the region.
  • Trafficking networks also fuel illegal migration outside of the region and destabilize regions like Europe.

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