2,000 Against Millions

Proclaim victory and pull out!

On December 19, Donald Trump tweeted his own version of this classic military maxim as the president announced the withdrawal of America’s 2,000 soldiers from the war against the ISIS caliphate in Syria.

Allies reacted with shock. Enemies mocked and gloated. Neither reaction should come as a surprise.

The president’s defenders emphasize that America has nothing to show for the $7 trillion it has spent on this war. The United States, they say, has much greater concerns at home and in East Asia. Few analysts, regardless of how they feel about America’s withdrawal from Syria, understand why such conflicts drag on and on, despite enormous losses. Historians and journalists rarely examine the demographic data that explain why deadly wars can last for decades or centuries.

Even the killing ground of Europe from 1500 to 1945 escapes their attention. And when it comes to Syria, they are utterly clueless about the link between rapid demographic growth and the long and bloody wars that have devastated this region. Explosive population growth results in explosions on the battlefield.

Between 1900 and 2015, Islam’s global population increased by a factor of nine, from 200 million to 1.8 billion people. Christianity, though still the largest religion worldwide, only quadrupled (from 560 million to 2.3 billion). Since 1950, Islam has added nearly 1.4 billion people to its fold, despite the fact that Iran, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey—which together have 180 million inhabitants—are now in a post-growth phase (defined as fewer than two children per woman).  This lower birth rate also applies to the approximately 20 million citizens in the rich sheikdoms between Bahrain and Kuwait.

But nine Muslim countries belong to the 68 nations of the world that have what I call a “war index” that is higher than 3—that is, they have 3,000 or more youths between the ages of 15 and 19 for every 1,000 men aged 55 to 59 who are close to retirement. For four Islamic countries outside the Middle East—Afghanistan (5.99; 36 million), Sudan (4.65; 42 million), Mauritania (4.17; 5 million) and Pakistan (3.39; 200 million)—the war index is even higher.

Today, there are about 100 million Arabs (up from 15 million in 1950) living in countries that have the high population growth that leads to a high war index: Iraq (5.80; 40 million), Palestine (5.46; 5 million), Yemen (5.41; 29 million), Syria (4.02; 18 million), Jordan (3.95; 10 million).

Since 1960, these five countries have been involved in almost 40 armed conflicts. “Only” seven of these conflicts involved attempts to annihilate Jews in Israel. The most virulent players of the Middle East and North Africa region may take occasional breaks from violent conflict. But until at least 2030, when their war index will have fallen well below 3, the region will have to establish a balance between the ambitions of its millions of unemployed young men and the too-few available jobs.

As it becomes more and more difficult for these potential fighters to get work or find social welfare outside their region, we can expect an increase in bloody rebellions against domestic elites, with frustrated young men demanding and fighting for a place in society. A continuation of the region’s low economic growth will make the fighting worse. In 2017, the five countries applied for nine (nine!) high-caliber international patents under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. More than 200 times as many applications came from Israel.

Since most of the victims of internal violence are Muslims as well, their elimination is usually justified as a mandate from the Most High. In this respect, the ISIS Caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provides lessons about the past and a peek at the future, as well. Because of Trump’s intervention in the war, ISIS has lost 98 percent of its territories and at least 60,000 men. Is this number frightening to them? Certainly! Does it mean an end to the ability of ISIS and its successors under some other holy banner to absorb losses?

Certainly not.

Due to very high birth rates up to 2015, the number of 15-29-year-old males in Iraq and Syria alone will rise by 3.5 million through 2030 (from 7.75 million to 11.25 million).

As a great danger, allegedly overlooked by Trump, it is emphasized that 30,000 hidden ISIS fighters would still have to be defeated before withdrawal can be considered. In actual fact, the number of angry young Islamists striving upwards by violence is at least 100 times higher. By staying in Syria, the 2,000 Americans risk their lives for coming battles that may not even be winnable for 100,000 western soldiers.

For Russians and Persians, who are now in a triumphant mood, Syria will not be a walk in the park either. Above all Putin, constrained by a war index of 0.67 (1,000 older men are followed by only 670 younger ones), loses the support of even ardent supporters in the event of significant losses. These powers can send their own sons to die in Syria and Iraq, or simply try to confine the revolutions in which competing brothers kill each other to the brothers’ own countries. None of this will happen peacefully.

Genocide threats from the belligerent young men of the Islamic world are not directed against Israel alone. Kurds are also targeted, and not just by Ankara. The aging, low birth rate West, in which every man who falls on the battlefield may terminate a family line, cannot do much to stop the years of violence that lie ahead. But strategic support for the survival struggle of threatened nations remains possible. Red lines around Israel and Kurdistan, the crossing of which would trigger air strikes against the heartlands of the attackers, would be one way of achieving such a goal.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

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About Gunnar Heinsohn

Gunnar Heinsohn is an emeritus professor at the University of Bremen. Since 2010, he has taught war demography at the NATO Defense College (NDC) in Rome. On October 23, 2018, he delivered the keynote speech for the 15th anniversary of the Joint Warfare Center (JWC) of NATO in Stavanger, Norway.