“President Obama and Congress owe it to both Afghans and Americans to explore a strategy of power extrication before they make another major decision to expand the war.”

That’s the opinion not of some left-wing activist, but of the chairman of the establishment, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb. It appears in an op-ed in the New Yortk Times today, entitled: “How to Leave Afghanistan.” It’s especially notable for two reasons: first, it comes on the eve of the release of President Obama’s Afghanistan review, which will be issued this month, and second, because it appears just above a piece called “How to Surge the Taliban” by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, et al. Kagan, his daughter Kimberly, and Max Boot of CFR were invited to Afghanistan by David Petraeus, the Centcom commander. It was Kagan, of course, who was the architect of the Iraq surge and who concludes in this piece that the war against the Taliban will be easier than the one in Iraq’s insurgents. Gelb concludes exactly the opposite:

We can’t defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. … As nasty as the Taliban are, America’s vital interests do not require their exclusion from power in Afghanistan, so long as they don’t support international terrorists. … Trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat in Afghanistan is unattainable, while finding a way to live with, contain and deter the Taliban is an achievable goal.

Instead of victory, Gelb proposes a diplomatic and economic surge, combined with a timetable for a US withdrawal over three years.

Elsewhere in the Times, reporter Helene Cooper provides an early glimpse of Obama’s Afghan strategy. It includes efforts to “seek some kind of political reconciliation with the vast majority of insurgents in the region, according to administration officials.” She cites Joe Biden’s comments, reported by me earlier, at NATO, in which he said that 70 percent of the Taliban are just paid foot-soldliers and only 5 percent are hard-core. And she adds this stunner about the number of hard-core insurgents:

A senior European diplomat involved in Afghanistan said officials believed that number to be 100 to 1,000 Qaeda and Taliban members.

But the important part of Cooper’s piece is this:

Several European officials said that the overarching theme behind the Afghanistan review was that NATO was looking for a way out of Afghanistan, and that everything done now was toward that end. “The goal now is simply to get to a point to prevent Afghanistan and Pakistan from becoming a place from which you can launch attacks on the West,” a senior European official said.

According to a source that I spoke with yesterday, the special-envoy counterparts of Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy, from Great Birtain, France, and Germany have all recently passed through Washington to deliver that message to Obama’s national security team, including Bruce O. Riedel, the former CIA officer and Brookings Institution specialist who is leading the Obama review.

As I’ve reported here and here recently, the exit strategy for Afghanistan involves talking to the Taliban, even as a surge of diplomacy integrates Iran’s neighbors into the mix and the United States encourages a worldwide effort to lavish economic aid on Pakistan and Afghanistan. On Wednesday, in the Times, Carlotta Gall reported — in a piece entitled “As US Weighs Taliban Negotiations, Afghans Are Already Talking” — that Afghanistan is already deep into talks but that it isn’t (yet) getting the American support it needs:

The Afghan government has been exploring the potential for negotiations with the Taliban leadership council of Mullah Muhammad Omar and with a renegade mujahedeen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, after receiving overtures from them last year, the officials said. …

Afghan government officials and Western diplomats said the peace process might have already made greater progress if the Afghan government and the United States had pushed it more forcefully. …

Several Western diplomats and officials in Afghanistan, including those already in contact with the Taliban, are calling for a far broader political engagement with the Taliban. They say that trying to engage moderate Taliban factions and splitting commanders or groups away from the Taliban leadership also would not work.

They say that negotiations have to be conducted with broad consultation among the Taliban leadership and through Pashtun tribal leaders and elders, since the Taliban are all ethnic Pashtun and ultimately answerable to their tribes.

Obama administration officials are said to be very skeptical of the idea that talking with the Taliban will work. The people I’ve talked to all accept the idea that the Taliban won’t talk peace because it thinks it’s winning. That’s the rationale for the Petraeus-Kagan surge.

Even Gelb says that the US is likely to accept a truly new strategy, like the one he proposes “only if our troop levels hit 100,000 and fighting floods over into Taliban havens in Pakistan.” He adds: “By then it will be too late.”