STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
All right, through much of this week, we've been hearing from young Afghans on the future of their country after NATO troops withdraw in 2014. Yesterday, our colleague Renee Montagne met with the American general who commands coalition forces in Afghanistan. They traveled to a special forces base where young Afghan men - and a few women - are being trained.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was making what's called a battlefield circulation. And on an afternoon when Kabul was reeling from the deadliest attack in months, Blackhawks took us into the countryside beyond the capital.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (foreign language spoken)
MONTAGNE: This is the sound of simulated combat - young Afghan commandos demonstrating for Gen. Dunford mixed martial arts.
GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: I just decided, I don't want to mess with these guys, especially this one.
MONTAGNE: Elsewhere, they show how they clear an enemy compound, and evacuate the wounded from the battlefield. The big spectacle of the day: a coordinated assault on an enemy position.
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GENERAL DONALD BOLDUC: The attack has commenced.
MONTAGNE: A general long involved in commando training, Donald Bolduc, looks on.
BOLDUC: As you can see, along the berm there, support by fire position's in place, so they have their machine guns.
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BOLDUC: As you just saw, an Mi-17 getting pretty close; flying aircraft over, in a low fashion. It's called a show of force. And it can have a very negative effect on the enemy, particularly when they don't have that capability.
MONTAGNE: As one Afghan special forces officer put it proudly, we are the sharpest knife in the drawer, always ready to fight. Still, the vast majority of Afghanistan security forces - which is now where it aimed to be, at 350,000 - are not nearly at the level of these commandos. I put that to Gen. Dunford later that evening, when we sat down at NATO headquarters in Kabul.
DUNFORD: Over the last couple years, we've really focused on the quantity of the Afghan national security forces. And we've gone from - really, the first time I was out in Helmand Province, the ratio was 10 United States Marines and - at that time - United Kingdom soldiers, to one Afghan. And at best, we really had one Afghan representing an Afghan face, if you will, on a coalition capability. Today, the ratio is three Afghans to one member of the coalition; and almost 90 percent of the operations that are being conducted, are being conducted by Afghans.
But in order for what we have done to be sustainable, we're transitioning now from quantity of the force, to quality of the force. We have inconsistent leadership across the Afghan security forces right now. We have the lack of aviation. We've got illiteracy challenges, that we address in recruit training. And just basically the systems, the processes and the institutions necessary to sustain a modern army are still things that have to be done, and those will be done over the next several years.
MONTAGNE: We saw special forces helicopters today that did some pretty impressive flying. But Afghanistan does not really have air power. Its air force is hardly trained or equipped. Is NATO and the U.S. going to fill that gap?
DUNFORD: There is a plan, right now, for increased numbers of helicopters. You saw the beginnings of it today. And they'll have some 85 of those Mi-17s that flew today, in support of special forces before 2017. We've got some light attack aircraft that are coming in, that will provide close air support. And they also have some Cessna-like aircraft, that allow them to move people back and forth across the country.
MONTAGNE: Is that going to be enough?
DUNFORD: The Afghan air force won't really be fully fielded until about 2017. In the end of the day, it'll be sufficient to deal with the threat that they have right now with the insurgency - absolutely.
MONTAGNE: Combat troops are scheduled to be out by 2014. There seems to be a gap between the readiness, and the drawdown of combat troops - NATO and American.
DUNFORD: I'd answer the question this way. Are the Afghan security forces ready to take the lead this summer? The answer is yes. Can they secure the elections in 2014? The answer is yes. And will they be able to effect full security transition at the end of 2014? Yes. Will we have a sustainable Afghan national army, and the Afghan police, in 2014? We won't. But NATO has already committed to a post-2014 mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.
MONTAGNE: What, then, are the challenges - the key challenges that you're looking at, in the next 18 months?
DUNFORD: I think the No. 1 challenge today, Renee, is overcoming the sense of - the lack of confidence that the Afghan people have about 2014. So for all the good things that are here, there's a sense still - and the Taliban, I think, are transmitting this message - there's a sense that the international community will abandon Afghanistan after 2014. And we're still dealing, in some areas, with the Taliban message that we're going to be here as occupiers.
And overcoming that narrative is one of our immediate challenges. I'm optimistic that we'll be able to do that this summer - in June; that'll actually be the formal recognition of the Afghans, in the lead for security across the country. This summer, what the Afghan people will see on a day-to-day basis is Afghans providing security to Afghans. And I think that will overcome the message of occupier that the Taliban has tried to transmit here, in recent years. The next challenge is how the Afghans perform this summer - in the summer of 2013. We want them to emerge as credible and confident; confident themselves, and credible in the eyes of the Afghan people in the fall of 2013. And of course, the most important event, from my perspective, that'll occur over the next 18 to 24 months are the elections in April of 2014. Those elections, I think, will be truly a watershed event. And I do believe the Afghan security forces right now will be capable of securing the environment and setting the conditions for inclusive, free and fair elections.
MONTAGNE: Although, just this morning, there was a deadly car bomb attack here, in Kabul. It left two American soldiers dead, four contractors; several Afghans dead, including a couple of children. What does that say about the security environment?
DUNFORD: Renee, we're still at war. There's still work to be done. The Afghan security forces are going about doing that work on a day-to-day basis. What it says is that the Taliban is still capable of conducting high-profile attacks. They're still capable of terrorizing the Afghan people. But, again, there's progress that has been made, and it's real. Well, today, we had a violent attack - and we've had several here, over the last two weeks. I can tell you, there's literally hundreds of attacks that have been planned and interrupted as a result of the cooperation of the Afghan security forces, with very little support from the coalition.
MONTAGNE: Last week, in a speech to students at Kabul University, President Karzai said that the U.S. is welcome to keep nine bases in Afghanistan, after most American troops leave in 2014. What did you make of that offer?
DUNFORD: You know, what President Karzai said about U.S. bases, I think, need to be clarified as first of all, we don't have a number yet associated with it because we're still developing our plans for post-2014. But in any event, what we're talking about is shared bases with Afghan security forces. In other words, our presence post-2014 will be where the Afghan security forces are. So we're not talking about U.S. bases. There's not a U.S. permanent presence in Afghanistan. That's not what's envisioned. What's envisioned is our access to bases in order for us to continue our train-advise-assist effort of the Afghans.
MONTAGNE: Training and advice, but not joining them in combat.
DUNFORD: That's right. Post-2014, the NATO mission will be a non-combat mission.
MONTAGNE: Gen. Joseph Dunford, thank you very much.
DUNFORD: Thank you, Renee.
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MONTAGNE: Gen. Dunford is the supreme military commander of international forces in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.