Senators largely silent on Gen. Allen's absence in confirmation hearing

The few mentions of the four-star general and top commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan during the hearing reflected lawmakers' praise for Allen's service, despite the ongoing scandal that has ensnared the Marine Corps officer. 

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"I continue to believe that General Allen is one of our best military leaders. And I continue to have confidence in his ability to lead the war in Afghanistan," Ranking Member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during Thursday's hearing to confirm Allen's replacement in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford. 

Allen had been scheduled to appear before the Senate panel for his confirmation as the new commander of U.S. forces in Europe. But the White House suspended his nomination on Monday, when reports surfaced of his involvement in the sex scandal surrounding former CIA Director David Petraeus. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday requested that Dunford's nomination to replace Allen be expedited through the confirmation process. 

Petraeus stepped down as CIA chief last Friday after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. 

An FBI-led investigation into Petraeus's personal emails uncovered the affair, as well as an intimate relationship between Allen and Petraeus associate Jill Kelley. 

Senate defense panel chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters on Tuesday the Pentagon should allow Allen to remain in his post as Afghan commander, pending the results of a DOD Inspector General's investigation into Allen's relationship with Kelley. 

Allen, who is married, could face disciplinary action or possible dishonorable discharge from the military under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if evidence shows an extramarital affair with Kelley. 

An affair between married service personnel is considered conduct unbecoming an officer and a violation of UCMJ code. 

Despite Allen's absence from Thursday's hearing, much of Dunford's testimony focused on his plans to build upon the four-star general's work in Afghanistan. 

The security gains in Afghanistan under Allen's watch will set the stage for the country's key elections set for 2014, the same year all U.S. forces are scheduled to pull out from the country, according to Dunford. 

American and NATO forces largely met their combat goals for 2012, which focused on flushing out Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan and preparing the country's armed forces to take over security operations in 2014, under Allen's command, Dunford told committee members. 

But the 2014 Afghan elections will be a "major milestone" for U.S. forces in the country and a critical test on the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to maintain order after Americans leave, he added. 

Several senators on the panel, however, expressed doubts about the prospects of the Afghan government and its security forces pulling off the national elections in two years. 

"I am wary about the situation [in Afghanistan]," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said during Thursday's hearing. 

"We don't need to muff it up here at the end" by handing over security to Kabul before they are ready, he noted 

The current situation in the country is "salvageable" but that tenuous stability in Afghanistan could fall apart quickly if the election process is considered a failure, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). 

Noting the security situation is already "falling apart" in Iraq a little less than a year after U.S. forces left, "I do not want to have that in Afghanistan." 

In response, Dunford noted ongoing work between Washington and Kabul on a postwar plan for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, coupled with an increasingly intensive effort to train the ANSF, will play a "critical part" in ensuring the 2014 elections go off without a hitch. 

That said, Dunford did not sugar-coat his thoughts when Graham pressed the nominee on what could happen if the Afghan elections failed. 

A failed election, according to Dunford, would have a destabilizing effect not only in Afghanistan, but in future relations with a nuclear armed Pakistan. 

"The Afghans recognize this for the threat that it is," he added, noting that failure in this area would simply be unacceptable.