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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Well, assuming the U.S. and Afghanistan hammer out an agreement, one priority, as Tom just mentioned, would be training Afghan soldiers. It's key if local troops are to hold their own against Taliban forces. Security remains tenuous in much of the country, with the Taliban still controlling parts of the south and east. And the group has vowed to keep fighting government forces even as winter sets in.

NPR's Sean Carberry reports from Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Shiite Muslims gathered in Kabul last week to celebrate Ashura, one of the holiest days on their religious calendar. Hundreds of shirtless men chanted and flogged themselves with chains tipped with knife-like shards of metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

CARBERRY: In the past, these public Shiite commemorations have become targets of the Taliban and other Islamist extremists. In 2011, 56 Shiia marking Ashura were killed by a suicide bomber. But this year, security was particularly tight.

NOOR AGA: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Shopkeeper Noor Aga says the celebration was magnificent and he felt safe.

AGA: (Through Translator) Security is better compared to previous years in Afghanistan but we cannot say our country is fully secure. There are provinces and cities that are very insecure.

CARBERRY: For example, Wardak Province, just south of Kabul. Zalmai, a civil servant who uses only one name, says there's no security there.

ZALMAI: (Through Translator) I can't go to my province because the roads aren't safe.

CARBERRY: Zalmai, like many Afghans, doesn't think Afghan forces are ready to provide security without NATO support. This year has been a test case for Afghan forces. NATO handed over security duties last spring just as the annual Taliban offensive began. And it was a campaign intended to demoralize Afghan forces and undermine public confidence in the military and government.

U.S. Major General James McConville assumed command of NATO forces in the east, just as that spring offensive began.

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES MCCONVILLE: And what I was concerned about as we came in, at least I was watching for, is as we brought our soldiers down, could the Afghans hold?

CARBERRY: He argues that Afghan forces did hold their ground this year. But there's plenty of room for improvement.

MCCONVILLE: They're not winning by enough that the enemy is willing to stop fighting yet.

CARBERRY: Major General Afzal Aman, the head of operations in Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, says Taliban fighters did not achieve their goals during this year's fighting season. But he says Afghan forces still need a lot of help with logistics and air power, as well as continued training - training that will end next year unless there is a security agreement with the U.S.

The Taliban remains deeply entrenched in parts of the south and east. And Taliban fighters carried out several high-profile attacks in Kabul and elsewhere this year, including some areas that had been considered secure. The militants killed thousands of civilians, soldiers and police officers, and they assassinated a popular provincial governor.

Historically, Taliban attacks drop significantly in the winter. But, with presidential elections scheduled next spring, Taliban leaders have vowed to keep up the fight to prevent the vote.

General Aman.

GENERAL AFZAL AMAN: (Through Translator) We have an operational plan for fall and winter in preparation for the elections.

CARBERRY: General McConville hopes there'll be enough of a lull this winter to carry out training of Afghan forces designed to lower their casualty rate, which NATO officials have called unsustainable. During peak fighting this past summer, as many as a hundred Afghan soldiers and policemen were dying each week. NATO has lost fewer than 200 troops all year.

McConville says the Afghans are particularly vulnerable to roadside bombs and traffic accidents, and they still need medical training.

MCCONVILLE: During the winter, we want to give them an opportunity to train on those things. And I've kept additional forces here to make that happen.

CARBERRY: But many of those forces are scheduled to pull out by February. And that will put even more pressure on an Afghan military that is still learning how to sustain itself.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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