Afghanistan’s future was the most popular discussion point during Thursday’s confirmation hearing on Gen. Joseph Dunford’s nomination to become the next Marine Corps commandant.

And while lawmakers’ questioning at times became intense over the Afghan National Security Forces’ preparedness to take over counter-terrorism missions when U.S. troops exit at the end of 2016, the panel made clear it intends to quickly confirm Dunford for his next post.

Dunford, who would become the Corps’ 36th commandant when Gen. Jim Amos retires this fall, has spent the last 18 months as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He agreed the Afghans would be unable to fully replace U.S. and coalition troops in terms of pressuring terrorist networks; not if current threats stay the same. Dunford also acknowledged he hadn’t recommended the strategy, recently put forth by President Obama, that calls for leaving 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2015 and then half of that in 2016, before the final pullout.

“I think all of us in uniform, to include the Afghans, would prefer if that were a bit more ambiguous,” he said.

Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to grade the Afghans’ current counter-terrorism strategy, Dunford said it would be a “D.” He also challenged a push by some lawmakers to oppose the purchase of Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan troops, saying that terminating the contract would be “catastrophic,” leaving Afghan troops unable to perform maintenance on their fleet of 80 Mi-17s, and possibly putting U.S. forces at risk.

The Afghans’ “inability to take the fight to the enemy,” Dunford added, “actually will put young Americans in harm’s way in 2015 and beyond.”

The general said, however, that he remains optimistic about the Afghans’ ability to maintain gains and provide security for their country, provided they receive the international community’s support and that the U.S. executes a “successful transition” of forces and efforts, something that he said was lacking in Iraq. As indicators of progress, he pointed to the 8 million children enrolled in schools, and the work of allied and Afghan forces to audit the June presidential runoff election.

“The most significant thing in Afghanistan today that didn’t exist in 2001 is hope,” Dunford said.

Priorities as commandant

Regarding his likely role as commandant, Dunford assured the panel he would continue to push for more amphibious ships to meet the demands of global combatant commanders and to effectively deploy Marines to hot spots worldwide. Amos has said the Marine Corps and Navy need 50 ships. And while current planning calls for 38, there are only 33 in the fleet.

“On a daily basis, the combatant commanders’ requirement for amphibious ships greatly exceed the inventory,” Dunford said. “I would support anything that allows us to maintain an effective amphibious inventory.”

Dunford stayed conservative on the topic of Marines’ pay and benefits, declining to name areas of potential excess. He did, however, acknowledge that ideally more of the Marine Corps’ budget would be directed toward equipment modernization and infrastructure.

He also said he does not intend to touch tuition assistance accounts, which were briefly cut last year due to budget shortfalls. Troops protested and the funding was restored this past February.

“If confirmed,” Dunford said, “my guidance would be consistent with what General Amos has provided.”

No committee members questioned Dunford’s ability to lead the Marine Corps. But Sen. Angus King of Maine, one of the Senate’s two independents, raised a maverick objection.

“This man is one of the most capable, intelligent, proven, successful commanders that I’ve ever worked with or seen,” King said. “Any management system that would move arbitrarily someone like that out of a job after 19 months given what he knows and his experience, that’s nuts. That’s a crazy management system.”

Officials said the Senate vote to confirm Dunford is expected to take place before the end of this month.

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