Washington — In the hours before the Taliban government said it executed Abdul Haq, comrades of the doomed Afghan opposition leader frantically phoned American supporters, saying soldiers were closing in.
American military help arrived, but too late. Members of the ruling Islamic militia captured and killed Haq, a former guerrilla leader who had slipped into Afghanistan to try to lure tribal leaders away from the regime.
Haq's call for help made it all the way to the U.S. Central Command, where a phone call Thursday afternoon came from none other than Robert McFarlane, national security adviser for Ronald Reagan and a longtime supporter of Haq.
In an interview, McFarlane said Haq and a handful of companions were traveling Thursday on foot near Jalalabad when they spotted Taliban forces ahead and behind them.
The group soon realized they were "in a very precarious position," he said. Using a satellite phone provided by backers, they put in a call to American businessman James Ritchie, who phoned his brother, Joseph. Joseph Ritchie in turn called McFarlane.
The former Reagan adviser said James Ritchie had simply asked his brother, "Is there anything anybody could do?"
Hours later, McFarlane said, a U.S. warplane attacked and destroyed a presumed Taliban convoy. By that time, he said, Haq's party had dispersed, trying to escape capture.
Haq's nephew Mohammed Yousuf said the former guerrilla and a companion were taken to the Rishkore barracks near Kabul and hanged. Their bodies were then sprayed with bullets.
The Pentagon had no comment on the attacks, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Haq's death "would be very sad and regrettable."
The Taliban's Bakhtar news agency said Haq was executed because he was spying for Britain and the United States. Bakhtar claimed he was found with two satellite telephones, U.S. dollars and unspecified documents.
Both McFarlane and Joseph Ritchie said Haq, a hero of the war against the Soviet Union, was operating independently.
"He was quite sensitive to the fact that Afghans had to solve this problem, and that he didn't want to be a tool of the United States," McFarlane said.
Ritchie said Haq had returned to Afghanistan "without one gun, one bullet" from the U.S. military.
Ritchie speculated that the U.S. response actually might have led the Taliban to believe Haq was operating with U.S. military support.
"Once the Americans came in, that probably sealed their death warrant," he said.
A member of the majority Pashtun community, Haq, 43, lost a foot to a land mine during the Soviet war. He had allied himself with exiled former king Mohammad Zaher Shah, believing the minority-dominated northern alliance would never be accepted by Pashtuns, who form the core of Taliban support.
Haq had claimed he was in contact with Taliban members who might be willing to cooperate.
Ritchie said Haq's group, numbering only 19, had four rifles and one pistol.