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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the debate has already begun about Afghanistan and exactly how quickly the U.S. should withdraw its forces from there, starting in July. Key to deciding how many American troops to take out is how ready Afghan troops are to take their place.

We invited into our studio the American general in charge of getting those Afghan forces ready. Army Lieutenant General William Caldwell is commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan.

Good morning.

Lieutenant General WILLIAM CALDWELL (United States Army): Well, good morning, Renee. Glad to be here.

MONTAGNE: Glad to have you.

There has long been rather a lot of skepticism about the ability of Afghan troops to become an efficient fighting army. Nobody's ever said that they can't fight, but there are all sorts of other issues. One big issue has been soldiers simply walking away, the high attrition rate.

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: Well, you know, we've seen a downturn in attrition over the last year. And really, the way that's coming about is because of what the Afghans are doing, not per se what we're doing. And that's because they are exhibiting much better leadership, they're taking better care of soldiers. So the things are being done to give those soldiers - the Afghan soldiers - the confidence they need, in their chain of command, so that they're willing to serve especially in the difficult areas.

MONTAGNE: Well, one issue in Afghanistan has been the ethnic group the Pashtuns are the majority in the country. And yet, the officers corps has, up until recently, been made up of non-Pashtuns. Pashtuns, as many people know, are where the Taliban draws most of its fighters from. Have you, in recent months, been able to get a better distribution in the officers corps of these different ethnic groups? Have you been able to draw Pashtuns from the South?

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: Well, we have Pashtuns in the officer ranks of sufficient numbers. But as you well point out, it's not the southern Pashtuns.

MONTAGNE: And that again, is where the Taliban insurgency is.

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: You know, it's the heartland.

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: And you're right. The real challenge we have with the officers, down the south, we - although we're getting some young men to join is, they're not well-educated down there. When we are able to recruit southern Pashtun men, our challenge is now to put them through this kind of educational training programs to raise their literacy level so that they can participate in the leader ranks.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about that. Afghanistan has a very high percentage of illiterate adults. What difference, though, does it make if a soldier on the battlefield is illiterate?

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: You know, you've obviously been to Afghanistan a couple of times, so you've personally seen it. I could not appreciate, until I was physically there on the ground two years ago - they can't even count to 10. They can't even write their name. I mean it's just a hard thing to comprehend to an American who has these opportunities back here.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Taliban, who are also illiterate, have been doing a pretty good job of fighting. How much better of a soldier would an Afghan be if he knew how to read or write?

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: The key there is if all you want to do is tear something down like the Taliban, then you don't have to have any kind of literacy level. If you're trying to build something up, they've got to be able to read ledgers and read maintenance manuals and they have to be able to do accountability of equipment, and they have to read the serial number on a weapon to account for a weapon that's been issued to them.

And what we were doing up until, literally 2010, we were not doing any literacy training at all. We were just producing soldiers to go out and fight. But now that we're looking at the longer term impacts of what we're doing, we're recognizing that to make this enduring, to make it last, we're going to have to instill literacy into the Afghan army.

MONTAGNE: Now the expectation is that trainers will be the last to leave. Would U.S. trainers be working on permanent basis in Afghanistan? I just spoke, the other day, to a highly placed Afghan official who spoke of joint facilities -places where U.S. forces would be stationed.

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: Well, I can tell you, you know, I'm a dual-hatted commander over there. I'm a NATO commander and a U.S. commander. And in my NATO hat, my boss, the secretary general of NATO, has told me that the training mission will be there well past 2014. So even when they do take the lead for security in 2014, our mission...

MONTAGNE: They, the Afghans, take the lead.

Lt. Gen. CALDWELL: They, the Afghans, that's correct. We, NATO, will continue to stay and operate with several thousand men and women on the ground for several years thereafter. As we say, there's about 4,000 military uniform personnel in our organization today. When the other 146,000 leave, we'll be the last 4,000 to go.

MONTAGNE: Lt. Gen. William Caldwell is commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan. He joined us in our studio here in Washington, D.C.

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MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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