Last night, at a dinner at a restaurant in Washington to present the findings of a high-powered task force on resolving the war in Afghanistan, I had an extended conversation with General Douglas Lute, President Obama’s top adviser on Afghanistan.

Lute was at the dinner, organized by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, to lend his support to the release of a new report, “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace,” the result of a months-long study by a task force from the Century Foundation. To call the task force high-powered is an understatement: its co-chairs are Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria who twice served in a crucial United Nations role in dealing with Afghanistan, and Thomas Pickering, a former US ambassador to Russia, India and the United Nations. Among the members of the task force were the former foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey, former senior diplomats from China and Japan and a number of key former US officials, including James Dobbins, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, who was the US representative at the Bonn conference that put together the Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban.

The point of the report: it’s time, immediately, to start negotiating with the Taliban. “While some counsel holding back from negotiations until military momentum is clearly and decisively in their favor, we believe that the best moment to start a political process toward reconciliation is now,” said the report. And Lute, while noting that he doesn’t agree with everything in the report, told me that his office, and the White House generally, had been cooperating with the Century Foundation task force since its inception.

Lute pointed out the significance of Secretary of State Clinton’s February 18 speech, delivered to the Asia Society in New York, a much-overlooked speech in which she announced an important, perhaps decisive, shift in US policy toward seeking a dialogue with the Taliban. In the speech, which is available on the State Department’s web site, Clinton said that after the military surge ordered by Obama in December, 2009, it’s time for diplomacy. “We are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome,” she said. Pivoting from the previous US insistence that any deals with the Taliban would involve mere “reintegration”—i.e., bribing, cajoling and persuading low-level Taliban to come over to Kabul’s side—Clinton instead called for “reconciliation.” For years, reconciliation has been a code word for talking directly to the senior officials of the Taliban about a broad-based political deal, and Clinton is ready. She emphasized that talks must involve “not just low-level fighters” but a “responsible reconciliation process.”

The major point of her speech was to emphasize that the preconditions for talking with the Taliban—namely, insisting the Taliban “renounce violence…abandon their alliance with Al Qaeda…and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan”—were now merely “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.” For the first time, the United States dropped its demand that the Taliban agree first to all that. Now, Clinton pointed out, it is enough that talks start with those goals in mind. And she added this zinger: “I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.”

The Century Foundation task force concluded that the war has reached a stalemate. To resolve the conflict, it proposes that a third-party, international facilitator with United Nations support immediately be appointed to explore with all “belligerents,” including the United States and the Taliban, how to get talks started. To kick-start the talks, they suggest taking members of the Taliban off of the United Nations sanctions list that condemns the Taliban leaders to international isolation and to explore the idea of a cease-fire, even local cease-fires, as a confidence-building measure. They endorse the idea, floated recently, of establishing an office outside Afghanistan and Pakistan where Taliban officials could set up shop, providing guarantees of safe passage for the Taliban in going to and from that office. And they propose an end to the killing on both sides, including the lethal night raids by US Special Forces under the command of General Petraeus and ISAF, the coalition forces in Afghanistan: “In the case of ISAF, this could involve an end to targeting of mid-level commanders, including shadow governors, and for insurgents an end to attacks on ISAF forces with improvised explosive devices and targeting of Afghan government officials and their local supporters.”

Most important, the task force suggests that the Taliban may very well be ready for talks. “For the insurgency, the prospects for negotiating a share of power are not likely to become appreciably brighter by waiting until 2014,” the report says. “Perhaps the only way they can get the Americans truly out is with a negotiated settlement.”

None of this will satisfy antiwar forces who want an immediate withdrawal. But for the Obama administration, which has twice ordered escalations of the war, it’s so far emerging as the likely strategy going forward. Lute is the first one to admit that the administration has a long way to go in making up for the fact that there has been a dearth of efforts toward a political strategy so far. At the dinner last night, Brahimi said: “Everybody says, there is no military solution. Fine. What is the non-military solution? I don’t think enough has been done to find out.” Lute agreed, and when I asked him if the Obama administration was planning anything to prepare Americans for the idea of a deal with the Taliban, which has been demonized for decades, he said: “We have a lot of work to do.”

Lute told me that going forward, the administration would first seek to unwind the most recent surge, in which Obama ordered another 30,000 troops into the war. Earlier, at the dinner, Larry Korb, from the Center for American Progress, who served on the task force, told me that up to 30,000 troops could be pulled out of Afghanistan by the end of 2011, starting with Obama’s pledge to draw down forces beginning in July. But Lute suggested that getting 30,000 out this year was at the far end of what’s being talked about, and that it would more likely take twelve to eighteen months. That’s far too slow to satisfy Obama’s Democratic party base, which has turned against the war overwhelmingly. But it underlines the fact that accelerating that drawdown is a worthwhile and possible goal for antiwar forces, including both Democrats and Republicans who’ve turned against the war.

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