General John Allen, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has urged the Taliban to renounce violence and respect women's rights if it wanted to play a part in the country's future.
Speaking to Jennifer Glasse, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Kabul, Allen said on Saturday that the group would have to soften their views to gain acceptance in the country.
"If the Taliban wants to play [a role] in the future of Afghanistan, they're going to have to give up the kind of violence toward the Afghan population, and the connection that they've had with al-Qaeda," Allen said.
But the outgoing general also said that ultimately, it is up to the Taliban, the Afghan people and the government of President Hamid Karzai, to reach a solution to the country's internal conflict.
Allen is due to step down on Sunday. His successor, US General Joseph Dunford is expected to be the last NATO commander of Kabul until the mission ends in 2014.
In the interview, Allan also said that the Afghan security forces are ready for a major milestone this spring.
During Allen's tenure, a new threat emerged - the so-called "insider attacks". Last year Afghans wearing security uniforms killed 61 NATO soldiers and civilian personnel.
He said he is confident that NATO and its Afghan counterparts have reduced the al-Qaeda threat as much as possible.
One of the biggest challenges ahead, Allen said, is the presidential election scheduled for April 2014.
"That will be a key moment of the modern history of Afghanistan and the Afghan national security forces being able to secure that election will in many respects contribute directly to the credibility of that election," he said.
Even the Taliban has the "potential" to be part of the political process, Allen said, adding that he thinks its ideology is "incompatible with many of the directions" the Afghan society has taken.
In a separate interview with Reuters news agency, Allen said the mass drive to educate girls - whose enrolment now stands at almost four million, compared to zero during the time of the Taliban - is crucial in changing the tide of public opinion in the country of 30 million.
"Here's an opportunity for this young generation for whom the Taliban was the nightmare of their parents, not necessarily a personal experience, to grow up in an environment where education is inherent in who they are.
"We're going to work very, very hard to ensure that our interest and commitment does not diminish in any way by crossing that temporal seam of 31st December, 2014," he said, referring to the day the coalition officially ends its mission.
Afghan women have won back basic rights in education, voting and employment since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, but fears are growing such gains could be traded away as Western forces prepare to leave and the Afghan government seeks peace talks with the group.
Despite recent advances, Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country in the world for women in a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011.
The White House said last month it will nominate Allen as NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, after the Pentagon cleared him of professional misconduct over emails to a Florida socialite linked to a scandal that led his predecessor David Petraeus to resign as director of the CIA.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies