WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban, President Barack Obama's national security adviser said Sunday as he downplayed worries that the insurgency could set up a renewed sanctuary for al-Qaida.
Retired Gen. James Jones also emphasized Pakistan's campaign against insurgents in safe havens along the border, suggesting that those efforts could provide a key shift in the war.
At the same time, Jones said the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai must improve and give hope to the people of Afghanistan. He added that he believes the government has a chance to succeed, with the aid of a strong effort by the U.S. to train the Afghan army and police.
"I don't foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling," Jones said.
"The al-Qaida presence is very diminished," he said. "The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies."
Jones also responded to a shot from Sen. John McCain, who said last week that the national security adviser didn't "want to alienate the left base of the Democrat Party."
"Sen. McCain knows me very well," Jones told CNN. "I worked for Senator McCain when he was a captain. I've known him for many, many years. And he knows that I don't play politics with national -- I don't play politics. And I certainly don't play it with national security. And neither does anyone else I know. The lives of our young men and women are on the line. The strategy does not belong to any political party and I can assure you that the President of the United States is not playing to any political base. And I take exception to that remark."
Jones' view differs from that of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal has called for an infusion of thousands more U.S. troops, saying that insurgents are gaining strength in Afghanistan and that the U.S. is in danger of failing if more forces are not sent to the fight.
Underscoring those concerns was a deadly battle Sunday near the Pakistan border, where several hundred militant fighters streamed from an Afghan village and a mosque and attacked a pair of remote outposts. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and as many as seven Afghan forces in one of the fiercest battles of the eight-year war.
However, Jones said the Pakistani government and army have done much better in recent months to root out militants in the mountainous border region.
"We hope that will lead to a campaign against all insurgents on that side of the border, and if that happens, that's a strategic shift that will spill over into Afghanistan," he said.
On the Afghan side, Jones said the Karzai government must achieve progress on economic development and must show it can govern without corruption and follow the rule of law.
Obama is considering a range of ideas for changing course in Afghanistan, including pulling back, staying put and sending more troops to fight the insurgency.
Jones said Obama has now received McChrystal's request for additional troops, and the force numbers will be part of a larger discussion that will include efforts to beef up the size and training of the Afghan army and police, along with economic development and governance improvements in Afghanistan.
"It would be, I think, unfortunate if we let the discussion just be about troop strength. There is a minimum level that you have to have, but there's, unfortunately, no ceiling to it," he said.
Jones spoke on CNN's "State of the Union" and CBS' "Face the Nation."