Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. testifies Nov. 15 before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington during a nomination hearing to be the next commander of the International Security Assistance Force and to be commander, U.S. Forces, Afghanistan. (Thomas Brown / Staff)
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WASHINGTON — The general nominated to be the next commander of the war in Afghanistan told the Senate on Thursday that the U.S. must continue its mission there, but he declined multiple times to outline how quickly the remaining 68,000 U.S. forces there should be withdrawn.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, a four-star Marine officer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it's important for the U.S. to make certain the Afghan National Security Forces can maintain security. Not doing so would have a destabilizing effect on the region and leave room for the terrorist network al-Qaida to operate, he said.
"That area is still ripe for sanctuary for al-Qaida," he said.
However, pressed on how quickly the remaining troops should remain, he said only that he saw the U.S.'s military advising mission in Afghanistan extending beyond 2014 — something top U.S. officials have said for months. Additional plans will require additional study and assessment if he is confirmed, Dunford said.
That answer wasn't good enough for Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz. He urged Dunford to speak "truth to power" about how quickly troops should be withdrawn, even if his assessment doesn't match President Obama's.
"Almost every answer you've given is that you're going to do studies and assessments," McCain said pointedly.
The hearing occurred under the cloud of a scandal that has engulfed the last two commanders of the war in Afghanistan. Retired Gen. David Petraeus resigned as CIA director last week after acknowledging an extramarital affair uncovered by an FBI investigation into threatening messages allegedly sent by his mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell.
It was later determined that the woman Broadwell allegedly threatened, Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, had exchanged "flirtatious" emails with Gen. John Allen, the current commander of the war, defense officials said. Allen, who is married, denied having an affair.
The scandal came up only in passing at the confirmation hearing, with Sen. Carl Levin, committee chair, acknowledging that Allen also would have been testifying Thursday about his nomination to become the commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. His nomination was tabled at the request of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, pending the result of a Defense Department inspector general review.
Asked Thursday if the U.S. is winning the war, Dunford didn't answer directly but said progress is being made. The number of Afghan forces continues to increase, most violence occurs outside urban areas and Afghanistan's government oversees the security of 76 percent of its people.
"As a result of our shared sacrifice and commitment, our goals are within reach," he said at one point, citing the sacrifice the Afghan people have made along with U.S. forces.
Dunford will be directly involved, he said, in assessing the ongoing green-on-blue threat, in which Afghan troops have killed at least 52 U.S. forces training them this year. However, he added that it's unlikely the problem will ever be squashed completely. Steps already taken to curb the problem have helped, but the threat will need continued monitoring.
"We know we have an adapting, thinking enemy," Dunford said. "If I'm confirmed, that issue will be at the top of my inbox."
Dunford has served as the Corps' assistant commandant since October 23, 2010. He has been viewed as a rising star for years, vaulting through the ranks quickly. He was nominated to serve as a two-star general in December 2007, but by February 2008, he had been nominated to serve as deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations.
In May 2009, President Obama appointed Dunford to serve as the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Marine Corps Forces Central Command, the service's component command in U.S. Central Command.
The general advanced again in 2010, when Obama nominated Gen. Jim Amos as commandant of the Marine Corps and Dunford as his four-star assistant commandant.
Dunford was flanked Thursday at the hearing by his two grown sons and his wife, Ellyn. He praised her for her love and support, saying she is "unquestionably the most valuable player in the Dunford family."