The outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan predicted Thursday that the Afghan presidential election impasse will be resolved peacefully to allow for a continued presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan next year.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said he had spoken to the candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and came away confident that they will abide by an audit of the disputed results of the presidential runoff election that showed Ghani in the lead.
"There will be a winner and a loser, and the loser will accept the results of the election as the will of the Afghan people," said Dunford, the outgoing commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Both candidates have already committed to signing a new Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S. that would allow for the presence of 9,800 U.S, training and advisory troops to remain in Afghanistan in 2015 after all U.S. combat forces withdraw at the end of this year. Currently, a total of about 30,000 U.S. and 10,000 coalition troops are in Afghanistan, Dunford said.
Dunford appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his nomination hearing to succeed Gen. James Amos as commandant of the Marine Corps. Gen. John Campbell, currently the Army's vice chief of staff, has been nominated to succeed Dunford at ISAF.
Dunford, 58, was expected to get easy confirmation by the full Senate despite questioning by several senators on Dunford's support for President Obama's plan for U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
The plan called for 9,800 U.S. and 4,000 coalition troops to remain in Afghanistan in 2015. The number of troops would be halved in 2016 and all troops would be withdrawn at the start of 2017 with the exception of Embassy security and a few hundred troops for an office of security cooperation.
Dunford said he had reservations about the firm date for withdrawal.
"I think all of us in uniform, including the Afghans, would have preferred for that to be a bit more ambiguous," Dunford said.
In his own nomination hearing last week, Campbell said he would not hesitate to recommend changes in the withdrawal plan based on conditions on the ground.
In questioning Dunford, Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said that Afghan commanders told them on a recent visit to Kabul that they were unprepared to fill the void left by the withdrawing U.S. forces.
"You are abandoning us, that's what they told me and Senator Graham," McCain said. "The fact is, we need a conditions-based decision. Right now, we are not confident the Afghans can take up the complete burden for their own security."
On Marine Corps matters, Dunford shared the same fears often expressed by Amos on the long-term effects of the sequester cost-cutting process on Marine readiness. Dunford also backed Amos on slowing the growth of pay and health care costs, and said he supported a 1 percent rather than a 1.8 percent military pay increase.
The senators did not mention, and neither did Dunford, recent speculation that Dunford's tenure as commandant could be relatively brief. Dunford, considered to be a favorite at the White House, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Dempsey retires next year.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com