KABUL, Afghanistan -- Under Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the new commander of international forces here, the American-led military coalition is no longer aiming to change Afghanistan. Its focus now is on a far more narrow goal: readying Afghan forces to withstand the Taliban regardless of the country's looming political and economic troubles.
The rest, he said in his first interview since assuming command in February, is up to the Afghans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who says he see the glass as "half-full," General Dunford laid out a case for why he believes Afghan forces will step up as the coalition's war here draws to an official close after 12 years.
He offered a far more positive take on the prospects for this country than many longtime Western officials here, and a less critical take than many of his predecessors had offered. They had emphasized that long-term stability would require faith in the Afghan government, which could be achieved only if the rampant corruption and widespread rights abuses were reined in.
In describing his goals for the Western military endgame in Afghanistan, General Dunford kept a tight focus on definable training and security benchmarks, leaving much of the politics out. He boiled it down to three fundamental questions: Will the Afghan troops be able to assume lead responsibility for military operations? Will the Afghan security forces be able to give security to the Afghan people nationwide for the 2014 presidential elections scheduled for next April? And, will the international troops be able to transfer all authority to the Afghans at the end of 2014 when the International Security Assistance Force mission ends?
"The answer is yes," to all three questions, General Dunford said, even while readily noting that there was much work ahead to reach that level of readiness.
Referring to the growth in size and capabilities of the Afghan Army, in particular, he said, "You can accuse me of being an optimist and I'll plead guilty. But to those people who think this can't happen, I would just ask them to look at the last two or three years and ask them why they can't imagine that we'll be on the same trajectory that we've been on the last two or three years." he said referring to the growth in size and capabilities of the Afghan Army, in particular.
While he acknowledged that corruption and human rights failures posed challenges, he appeared to see them as less-corrosive threats to the military mission than some of his predecessors did.
"Over time we'll continue to see, in fits and starts, corruption," he said. "We'll still see predatory behavior, and the only way it's going to be fixed is when the Afghan people demand that it be different and when Afghan leadership demands that it be different."
Asked whether widespread perceptions about corruption in the police force could actively help the Taliban, or at least hurt the government, he answered, "This is not something that we can impose."
Even as a fierce debate is being waged in Washington about how many troops to dedicate to the Afghan mission beyond the end of the international military mission in 2014, General Dunford, rather than weighing in publicly by making an argument for specific troop levels, has taken the tack of laying out a clearly defined picture of the areas where the Afghan military will need long-term help.
He noted several trouble spots: air support and transportation for the Afghan forces, command and control capabilities and a continuing struggle with attrition in the Afghan Army. The army loses 2 percent to 2.9 percent of its soldiers every month, according to the Pentagon's most recent semiannual report to Congress in December. That added up to more than 54,000 soldiers from September 2011 to September 2012, out of a total force that has hovered at barely 190,000, putting great pressure on the military's recruiting and training operations.
He has concluded as well that plans to reduce the number of Afghan security forces -- the army and police combined -- to 228,000 after 2015 from the current target level of 352,000 are not realistic given the threats in the country. "The consensus now both from the Afghans and certainly from us is that we ought to sustain that for some period time to come," said General Dunford, referring to the 352,000 head count.
What is less clear is how such a force could be paid for. The international community, led by the United States, has agreed to pay roughly $4.1 billion in aid per year for the Afghan security forces after 2014, based on estimates of what a smaller Afghan security contingent would cost. If the Afghans want to keep a larger force, they will either have to field a cheaper army and police force or come up with more money themselves to pay for it. General Dunford suggested that the Afghans could economize, although he did not give examples of where they might find the savings.
Just months into his command, his tenure has already been marked by tensions between American officials and President Hamid Karzai, who has criticized American Special Operations and intelligence missions in Afghanistan. General Dunford's approach to working with Mr. Karzai so far has born out his reputation as a direct and pragmatic Marine officer: While he has not gone out of his way to forge personal trust with the Afghan leader, as some predecessors did, neither has he pushed Mr. Karzai to reform.
His style was particularly visible when Mr. Karzai demanded that all Western forces leave Wardak Province after Afghan civilians were abused by irregular Afghan forces operating under Western supervision. Instead, General Dunford agreed to withdraw the Special Operations forces from the district where the problems occurred and transfer training responsibilities there to the Afghans. He satisfied Mr. Karzai, but left intact much of the security structure in the turbulent province.
As Afghan forces increasingly take the lead in combat operations this year, General Dunford cast it as an opportunity for the Afghan government to prove to Afghans that it is defending them and to show the Taliban that now they are fighting fellow Muslims and countrymen, he said.
The Taliban will make every effort, in his words, "to create the perception of insecurity." And he warned that the Haqqani group, a well-organized and financed branch of the insurgency in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas, remained "one of the most virulent strains in the insurgency."
Still, he said he believed this fighting season would be a turning point: "I think the Taliban are going to come out of the gate and they are going to run into a brick wall -- and that brick wall is not going to be the coalition, it's going to be the Afghan security forces."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.