By Kristina Wong - 04/07/14 10:24 AM EDT
About 7 million Afghans voted in their presidential election on Saturday that was devoid of any major violence — an outcome that U.S. officials greeted with relief and optimism as the elections enter the next phase.
"I want to commend the millions of Afghans who went to the polls today to vote for their next president," said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a statement.
"The open and responsible debate among the candidates over the past two months, and the turnout for these elections, demonstrates to the world that the Afghan people want to determine their own future," he said.
There were some wrinkles, however. At least 20 people were killed, some polling places ran out of ballots, and there are some reports of fraud, which election officials will sort out in the weeks to come.
It could take as many as six weeks to find out if any of the candidates scored over 50 percent, according to Reuters. If not, the top two candidates will proceed to a run-off.
Partial results tallied by news organizations indicate that the two frontrunners are former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, the Wall Street Journal reported from Kabul.
"If the pre-election preparations are matched in the post-election processes, I’m hopeful that the vote’s outcome will be one that is credible and acceptable to the Afghan people. This will be the ultimate test for Afghanistan," Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Sunday.
If there is a run-off, the eventual winner could be sworn in as late as August, just four months before the U.S. and NATO combat mission will end.
U.S. officials hope the winner will sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain on Afghan soil, to continue training Afghan troops and conduct counterterrorism missions.
Current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, leaving it up to his successor, but Saturday's vote was a step towards making that happen.
Hagel touted the U.S.-Afghan military relationship in his statement Saturday evening from the Asia Pacific, where he is traveling.
"As Afghanistan begins a peaceful transfer of power, and we look ahead to the end of our combat mission later this year, we should not lose sight of how much we have accomplished," Hagel said.
"The progress we have seen in Afghanistan is a testament to the tireless efforts and sacrifices of American, ISAF, and Afghan personnel. But above all, it shows the strength and resilience of the Afghan people, and of the partnership the United States has built with them. It is a partnership that will endure."
Back in the United States, lawmakers hold a number of defense-related hearings next week.
On Tuesday morning, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno will testify before the House Armed Services Committee, along with Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass and the Chief of the Army Reserve Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley.
The hearing could be tense, as the Army has put forward a controversial proposal for dealing with sequestration that would cut the National Guard force to 315,000 as the active duty force goes down to 420,000 by 2019.
The National Guard, along with some governors, are pushing back hard against the cuts.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will look at the services’ plans for its tactical aircraft programs, particularly on funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
That same day, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will take a look at “Russian Military Developments and Strategic Implications.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry testifies in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On Wednesday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee is holding a hearing on the “Continued Assessment of Delays in VA Medical Care and Preventable Veteran Deaths.”
On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services panel will look at the Air Force’s posture, and will likely press officials on their decision to cut its entire A-10 fleet, which is unpopular with lawmakers.
Later that day, the Senate panel will explore Navy shipbuilding programs. Likely topics of discussion include the Pentagon's decision to inactivate a carrier if sequestration is not overturned, as well as the Navy's plans to change how it counts its ships.
House Armed Services on Thursday will grill all of the services on their readiness posture as officials testify about the effect the budget cuts will have on their ability to remain ready for combat.
Finally, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday will look into “Transatlantic Security Challenges in Central and Eastern Europe,” with Assistant Secretary Of State For European And Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland testifying.