By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The general chosen to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan through the critical transition to Afghan security control in 2014 declined to speculate on Thursday on how quickly American troops would be withdrawn from the country.
Pressed by lawmakers at his confirmation hearing on whether he would support keeping troop levels at about 68,000 for the next two years to reassure Afghans and U.S. allies, Marine General Joseph Dunford said he wanted to assess the military capabilities that would be needed through 2014 before making that judgment.
Dunford, who earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" during the 2003 Iraq invasion and currently serves as assistant commandant of the Marines, acknowledged under questioning by Senator John McCain that he had not been included in ongoing discussions about troop levels in Afghanistan.
"That's interesting to me," McCain replied. "The guy that's going to take over the command has not even been included in those conversations. Do you feel prepared to assume these responsibilities?"
Dunford said he did. McCain responded that he had spoken to commanders at all levels in Afghanistan and they agreed that current forces needed to remain in place through 2014 because a steady withdrawal would keep them from accomplishing many of their missions.
"If we can't accomplish the mission, I'm not sure why we should stay," McCain said. "And I think that's something a lot of us have to wrestle with."
Defense officials said later it was not unusual that Dunford was not involved in discussions about troop levels in Afghanistan. The typical practice is for a nominee to avoid direct contact with future colleagues about the position until the Senate has confirmed the nomination.
General John Allen, the current commander of international forces in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration have been in talks about troop levels for 2013 as well as the period after 2014, when Afghan forces take full security responsibility for the country.
A decision could come in the next few weeks. President Barack Obama has repeatedly shown a willingness to draw down troops in Afghanistan faster than some of his military commanders would like.
HEARING COMES AMID GENERALS' SCANDAL
Dunford's confirmation hearing took place against the backdrop of a scandal that prompted CIA Director David Petraeus, a former top general, to resign over an extramarital affair, and triggered an investigation of Allen over potentially inappropriate emails.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has put Allen's nomination as the next head of the U.S. European Command on hold pending the outcome of the investigation.
Several senators on Thursday paid tribute to Allen's work in commanding troops in Afghanistan, without directly mentioning the scandal.
Conservative lawmakers have voiced concern about the White House push to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, fearing it is eroding gains international forces have made in the fight against the Taliban. They say uncertainty about the long-term U.S. commitment is causing a rise in instability.
In addition, a surge in deadly insider attacks by Afghan soldiers against NATO troops has raised questions about whether local security forces are ready to take over from the international military alliance.
"The president's repeated emphasis on withdrawal without laying out what would constitute a successful and sustainable transition has only fed the belief in Afghanistan that the United States is committed to getting out regardless of conditions on the ground," McCain, the committee's senior Republican, told the hearing.
Dunford said countering the perception that the United States was leaving Afghanistan would be important to strategic success. He said reaching a status-of-forces agreement to govern continued U.S. participation in Afghan security would be an important milestone.
Dunford said he was "cautiously optimistic" that U.S. and Afghan leaders would be able to reach an agreement on the issue. Negotiations began on Thursday and are due to be completed early next year.
The agreement would provide a "clear and compelling narrative" to Afghans, their neighbors and coalition partners that the United States committed to the transition to Afghan security control in 2014 but also will "see through the decade of transformation that needs to follow ... 2014," he said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney)