Sorry, this is a long post.
Down a rutted street in a quiet suburb of south Kabul lives a man the CIA once locked in a cage for months as an enemy combatant.
Seven years later, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil, 38, who served as foreign minister when the Taliban ran Afghanistan, may prove to be President Barack Obama's best chance of ending the gruelling war in Afghanistan - by enabling negotiations with America's enemies.
Such a prospect would have seemed far-fetched only a year ago; but now, as Mr Obama grapples with difficult Afghanistan decisions, faced with a faltering Kabul government and a spreading insurgency, all options are on the table.
Some of them may seem distinctly unsavoury for a president elected as a liberal idealist - in particular the notion of doing deals with Taliban commanders, and empowering former warlords and tribal leaders who have blood on their hands and in many cases hatred in their hearts.
But America's desperation to regain the initiative in an increasingly unpopular war has already produced some remarkable changes, and uncomfortable moral compromises are now on the agenda.
Among them, the Obama administration has indicated that it intends to make a fresh attempt to engage more moderate Taliban groups in talks with the Afghan government - in a determined effort to woo at least some of them away from the fighting that is claiming increasing numbers of American and other Nato forces' lives.
Mullah Mutawakkil, once a confidant of the one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was held at a US base in Kandahar in 2002 after he gave himself up to American troops.
Now he is being politely wooed by a stream of senior US officials who make discreet visits to his villa, which is guarded by armed police, to hear his thoughts on what the Taliban mood is like and whether any of its leaders are ready for talks.
A soft-spoken and intelligent man who was one of the Taliban regime's youngest ministers, Mullah Mutawakkil is cautious about what can be achieved, but even so his thinking is music to tired Western ears.
He believes that the Taliban would split from what he called their al-Qaeda "war allies" if a deal was within reach. Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph in the guest room of his Kabul home, he insisted that a settlement to end the war was possible â and that it would be the West's best chance of stopping terrorists from turning Afghanistan back into their base again.
"If the Taliban fight on and finally became Afghanistan's government with the help of al-Qaeda, it would then be very difficult to separate them," he warned.
But there is, he says, another option. Taliban leaders are looking for guarantees of their personal safety from the US, and a removal of the "bounties" placed on the head of their top commanders. They also want a programme for the release of prisoners held at the notorious Bagram US air base in Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay.
In return, he says, the Taliban would promise not to allow Afghanistan to be used to plan attacks on America â the original reason for American invervention, and the overriding aim of US policy in the region.
"The United States has a right to be confident that every government, whether Taliban or any other kind of government, would guarantee not to threaten America," he said.
The former foreign minister believes the Taliban understands that Afghanistan has changed since they were driven from power. They want a nation governed by strict Islamic laws but realise they cannot turn the clock back, he said.
He cautioned that negotiations would not be easy. "I am not an optimist. But talking would be better than war," he said.
The new American thinking is that what they deem the "nationalist" Afghan Taliban may be divided from its more extreme elements - and also from al-Qaeda, whose cohorts of foreign fighters are interested almost exclusively in jihad against the West.
Mr Obama is expected to announce up to 45,000 more US troops and an accompanying surge in spending on development projects, as part of the battle to win "hearts and minds".
But after eight painful years American officials have come to recognise that military and financial might are not enough to prevail in a land of baffling ethnic and tribal complexity. Some form of political reconciliation is needed as well.
"If you don't have both a military and a political strategy, you can't have either," a Western official said, describing the new thinking.
With that in mind, President Obama has recently spoken of al-Qaeda and "extremist elements" as America's main problem - not the Taliban. Such careful language seems aimed at opening a door to talks.
When Mullah Mutawakkil was a member of the Taliban government, he was respected by many ordinary Afghans and regarded by Western diplomats as a "moderate" who wanted to open the fundamentalist regime to the outside world.
As one of the few senior Taliban figures to be reconciled to the new Afghan way of government, he is in touch by telephone with old comrades who are still fighting. His contacts with officials from the US Embassy in Kabul and from the office of US special envoy Richard Holbrooke have increased in recent weeks.
"They come and listen carefully, but at the moment they don't say much," he said with a wry grin. "Until the US wants peace, there will be no peace."
This weekend, America's efforts - and those of other countries engaged in Afghanistan - are focused on forcing the pace in frantic negotiations over how to end the almost two-month impasse over the presidential election. It is widely expected to be announced over the next few days that too many of Mr Karzai's votes were fraudulently cast for him to be the outright victor.
Afghanistan's constitution requires that if no candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the votes, there must be a run-off between the two leading contenders.
Now there is huge international pressure on Mr Karzai to accept whatever is the result of the ballot-stuffing inquiry. There is also pressure on both him and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the former eye surgeon and briefly foreign minister who is his challenger, to agree a deal that would somehow avoid a second round of the election, with all the security and logistical problems that would bring.
In public, neither is willing to compromise as yet, though their aides are said to be talking urgently behind the scenes.
However the election is resolved, the new goverment will face the same dilemma about talking with the Taliban - and making deals with men like Arsalan Rahmani, 70, who was Islamic affairs minister under the Taliban but is now a senator in the Afghan parliament.
"The Taliban accept weapons and money from al Qaeda for their war," he said. "But if the Taliban had a good relationship with the government they would get rid of al Qaeda because then they wouldn't need them any more."
He insisted that only a minority of the Afghan fighters were hardliners driven by religious fervour. "Some are fighting to go to paradise, but among the Taliban leaders most want peace. Afghanistan is their homeland and they want peace here."
The senator said the majority of the movement's leadership council, based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, was ready to take part in negotiations, but not Mullah Omar, the Taliban's leader who is close to bin Laden.
The price of an eventual deal could be allowing Taliban governors to take over southern provinces â perhaps Helmand and Kandahar - the imposition of strict religious laws, and allowing former insurgents to take government posts.
Senator Rahmani, a former Islamic affairs minister under the Taliban, said that the foreign fighters who have flocked to the Pakistan badlands for jihad against America would prove a problem for negotiations. He compared the al-Qaeda men to hardliners on the US side who want to fight until they achieve total victory.
Last year in Saudi Arabia, Mullah Mutawakkil and Senator Rahmani met Afghans connected to the Taliban in an attempt to gauge the chances of serious talks getting under way.
New clandestine negotiations are expected to restart in the next few weeks, with a Western diplomatic source in Kabul describing current political conditions for talks as "benign".
Out in the wartorn provinces, the US military's finest brains are trying to work out new counter-insurgency strategies involving setting up tribal militias and buying the loyalties of Taliban commanders and small-time warlords.
Meanwhile, Western diplomats in the Afghan capital no longer enthuse about women's rights, democracy and nation-building; but they do talk about working with "traditional figures" â a new Kabul euphemism for the warlords expected to win a place within a re-elected government led by President Hamid Karzai.
America tried hard to stop Mr Karzai from making secret deals with powerful former warlords before the election, and failed.
US officials are most troubled at the return of the powerful Tajik leader Marshal Mohammad Fahim, the former leader of the Northern Alliance forces which swept the Taliban out of Kabul in 2001. For several years he was a key American ally, but US officials finally forced him from power in 2004, only to see him make a comeback this year when president Karzai named him as running mate.
He will almost certainly be vice-president, and may be sitting in cabinet along with a gruesome line-up of old warlords.
Others who may wield real power include Karim Khalili, a leader of the Hazara ethnic minority, and Ishmael Khan, an immensely wealthy former guerrilla leader from the western city of Herat.
"Expect a colourful line-up for the cabinet of tribal leaders, old warlords, and efficient western-educated bureaucrats," one Western official in Kabul said.
A Western-educated Afghan who works for an international agency put it another way. "Where are the leaders who we can trust? Everyone is fed up because of the election and corruption."
Diplomats are trying to pressure President Karzai to leave technocrats in real control; they dread the prospect of a cabinet stuffed with warlords, or the sons and placemen of warlords.
They are investing their hopes in some of the more effective ministers who have been appointed in the past year, politicians who could start to tackle corruption and persuade Afghans that the government offers a better life than the Taliban.
If Western officials do not manage to improve the quality of administration, they know the Taliban is now only a few miles outside Kabul, waiting for the government to fail - and that after the debacle of the election, ordinary Afghans has rarely been so demoralised.
Some admit they are tempted by the allure of the Taliban, which at least might provide a government free from corruption. Others are warning of a second exodus of talented Afghans, like that which occurred when the Taliban ran the country.
"I came back to Afghanistan from a Pakistan refugee camp in 2002 expecting a better life and for a while we were happy," said Waleed Masood, a student aged 23. "But Afghanistan is a killing ground now even in Kabul with so many bombs. I want to get out. Perhaps I will try to go to England."