March 15, 2015:
Afghans were shocked by what happened to Iraq in 2014. What was especially scary for Afghans was that Iraq had a better educated population and better access to modern technology and the world in general and was much better organized than Afghanistan. Afghans also knew that Iraq suffered, as did Afghanistan, from corruption and tribalism. But it was still a shock when the Iraqi security forces fell apart in mid-2014 as Islamic terrorists took control of the second largest city (Mosul). Now more Afghans, especially their leaders, are pressuring the United States to modify their current plan, which is to reduce American military personnel in Afghanistan to about 5,500 by the end of 2015 and to zero by the end of 2016.
Iraq kicked all but a thousand or so American troops out of Iraq in 2011. After Mosul fell a new Iraq government told the Americans that the 2011 decision was a mistake and could you please come back. The United States has sent in several thousand specialist troops and even more contractors, but not regular combat troops. Afghans understand that the U.S. forces were expelled in 2011 partly because these men and women constantly exposed corrupt practices. Foreign diplomats then used that information to annoy Iraqi leaders with demands to curb the corruption or see foreign aid cut. Even in 2011 many Iraqis knew this and spoke up about it but the corrupt officials declared it was a matter of national honor to expel the meddlesome foreigners and that was that.
Afghans do not want this happening in Afghanistan. This is especially true because while Iraq has great oil wealth all Afghanistan has is heroin, an illegal export that most Afghans (because of over two million local addicts) and all the neighbors hate big time. The profits from the production and sale of heroin help sustain high levels of corruption in Afghanistan. The Taliban has always used heroin profits to pay bribes and stay in business and they continue doing that. All the more reason to keep the Americans around, to prevent the drug gangs and their Taliban muscle from trying to take over the government completely. Opinion polls show that the majority of Afghans do not want that, if only because the heron trade is controlled by a minority of the Pushtun minority (who are 40 percent of the population). The non-Pushtun majority are even more determined to stop the Taliban from trying to take control of Kabul and the country again. The Taliban had almost done that in 2001 when, after six years of drug gang financed effort they had gained control over more than 80 percent of the country. American intervention in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks smashed (but did not eliminate) the Taliban, who have spent over a decade rebuilding, again financed by drug profits.
The Afghans are satisfied (but not entirely pleased) with the current deal. That means there are only a few thousand American combat troops and a lot of support troops to help keep the Afghan soldiers and police operational. While the United States only has 10,600 troops in Afghanistan there are nearly 40,000 contractors. Over 40 percent of these contractors handle keeping American, NATO and Afghan equipment operational. That means maintenance, repairs and moving in and accounting for all the spare parts and other items needed for the maintenance and repairs. American troops, civilian contractors and more than 5,000 foreign troops and officials from American allies still in the country all depend on these support services along with the Afghan security forces.
You have nearly 60,000 foreigners still in Afghanistan whose main function is keeping some 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police functional and effective. The foreigners and the skilled Afghans working alongside them keep the communications and many of the vehicles (especially aircraft) operational. The foreigners make the Afghan intelligence operations much more effective and provide expert advice to Afghan commanders on technical issues (like communications, supply, intelligence and effectively monitoring the performance of Afghan soldiers and police). The foreigners also monitor the Afghan commanders they support to detect who has been corrupted.
One major effort by the foreign troops and contractors is to maintain and expand the Afghan Air Force. NATO is working to increase the number of Afghan warplanes by 50 percent by 2016 and are training several hundred new pilots and even more technical people to keep the aircraft operational. The problem here is that technically trained Afghans see those skills as a way out, or at least to take a better paying (and safer) job outside the military.