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Taliban Return To Power Unlikely, Says White House Aide

White House national security adviser James Jones
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A top aide to President Barack Obama has said he did not see an imminent risk that Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban and said strong strides had been made against Al-Qaeda's presence there.

"The good news that Americans should feel at least good about in Afghanistan is that the Al-Qaeda presence is very diminished," White House national security adviser James Jones told CNN.

"The next step in this is the sanctuaries across the border" in Pakistan, Jones said. "But I don't foresee the return of the Taliban and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling."

In the deadliest battle for U.S. troops in more than a year, eight American soldiers were killed after tribal militia attacked two combat outposts in a remote area of eastern Afghanistan, the military said on October 4.

The troop deaths come as Obama has been convening his top foreign policy advisers for a series of meetings to consider options for the eight-year-old war. His administration is split over whether to boost U.S. forces or take an alternative path.

Jones's comments differed in tone from the grave assessment offered by General Stanley McChrystal, the head of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, who called the situation there "serious" in a speech last week and said success in the campaign against the Taliban could not be taken for granted.

McChrystal last week told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that the insurgency in Afghanistan was growing and the situation was deteriorating. He is seeking up to 40,000 more troops and trainers for the Afghan war, according to U.S. officials.

McChrystal warned in a confidential assessment that was leaked to the media last month that if the Afghan government were to fall to the Taliban, it could again become a base for terrorism.

Asked if Afghanistan could again become a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, Jones said, "I think that's a hypothetical."

He said that the maximum estimate of Al-Qaeda militants operating in Afghanistan was "less than 100.... No bases. No buildings to launch attacks on either us or our allies."

Discussing the Al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan, the government and army "has done much better than anybody thought" at dealing with that threat on its side of the border.