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The Demographic Side of War in the 21st Century

July 4, 2009

It’s always a bit disconcerting to come across an idea that hits you with a blinding flash of the obvious – a simple, important insight whose logic is clear and seemingly irrefutable. I reacted this way to a recent article in the Times, by someone called Richard Ehrman. He starts with a straightforward fact of demography:

In terms of numbers the West still held the upper hand compared to the Middle East until well after the Second World War. In 1950 all the Arab countries together had a combined population of only 60 million, compared with nearly 160 million in the US and a combined total of 120 million for Britain, France, and Spain — the three European powers that then still ruled territory in the Arab world.

By 2000 the demographic balance had changed dramatically. The Arab world had increased fourfold to just over 240 million, not far short of America’s 284 million.

So far this sounds a bit like Mark Steyn’s obnoxious but deeply relevant book America Alone. But while Steyn was concerned with the effects of large numbers of Islamic immigrants on Western societies, Ehrman sees implications for the ability of the West to project power in the Middle East and elsewhere:

The problem has been that, even for a power as mighty and sophisticated as the US, occupying a Third World country with a fast-growing population means putting an uncomfortably large number of boots on the ground.

Western militaries can still win wars in “Third World” countries, in the traditional sense of destroying enemy forces and subduing or even overthrowing regimes. The hard part, following Ehrman’s logic, is dictating what happens afterwards. Controlling a large population requires a large number of occupying troops – and particularly in the Middle East and Africa, populations are much larger relative to Western ones than was the case 50 or 100 years ago. The picture gets even worse when you compare local populations specifically to the sizes of Western armies, and when you consider that Middle Eastern and African countries often have disproportionate numbers (relative to the West) of men of fighting age.

To move from the general to the specific, Canada’s Afghan contingent of fewer than 3,000 soldiers has not been sufficient to keep a lid on Taliban activity in Kandahar Province, and deploying even this modest number has strained our resources. Britain and especially the US are able to maintain much larger numbers of troops in the field, but whether they will be able to impose reasonable levels of security and stability remains an open question.

Demographic futures are difficult to predict. For the moment, however, Canada and other Western countries seem to have little choice but to accept that occupying “Third World” countries is a more difficult proposition than it used to be. It may become more necessary than ever to rely on friendly local forces, which of course has already become a major pattern for the Americans in Iraq and for the Western alliance in Afghanistan.


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