When the Afghan opposition leader Abdul Haq was surrounded by Taliban soldiers, pinned down and facing death last week, the phone rang in the home of a wealthy Chicago businessman, Joseph Ritchie.
The frantic call was from Mr Ritchie's younger brother, James, 44, ringing from the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. He in turn had just been contacted by Mr Haq, calling on a satellite phone and desperately seeking help.
From Chicago, Mr Ritchie, 54, was able to reach an old contact, the former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who in turn spoke to the CIA. Its response was to dispatch an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft armed with a missile. Within minutes Mr Haq was captured, summarily tried and executed. With his death, one of the West's best chances of fomenting anti- Taliban rebellion among the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan also perished.
Mr Ritchie said: "I knew from the beginning his chances were slim. Basically, I have tried not to be too critical. But the way the US government handled this situation could have been different."
The Ritchie brothers and their involvement in the struggle to create a new post-Taliban government within Afghanistan represent one of the more unlikely and murky footnotes in America's struggle to oust the fundamentalist regime and capture Osama bin Laden.
The two brothers' links with Afghanistan began in the late 1950s and early 1960s when their father, Dwight, took the family to live in Kabul where he worked as a civil engineer.
Joseph Ritchie told The New York Times: "The place really hooked me. The people there were just the coolest people I had ever been around."
After returning to America, the brothers made their fortunes as commodity traders, establishing a company, Chicago Research and Trading.
In 1993, the company was sold for $225m, but the two brothers had never lost their interest in Afghanistan or its future and they have used their money to try to build a government that would replace the Taliban.
Exactly what the relationship was between the Ritchies, Abdul Haq and the political and intelligence establishment in Washington remains unclear.
The CIA has denied any involvement in Mr Haq's last mission into Afghanistan, though it seems obvious he was liaising with it, and the Ritchies say they have no relationship with the CIA, despite their link to Mr McFarlane.
What is clear is the efforts they have expended to promote and organise the anti- Taliban forces. In the past year, James Ritchie has spent $100,000 (£68,500) on running the office of Afghanistan's deposed king, Zahir Shah, who the West hopes may be able to oversee a broad-based coalition government if and when the Taliban are forced out. Mr Ritchie was helping to pay for Mr Haq's mission into Afghanistan when he was captured.
James Ritchie said he was contacted in 1998 by someone informing him of a forthcoming "peace conference" involving various Afghan opposition figures. "I wound up helping out, buying tickets to get people there," he told The Wall Street Journal. "Some guy just called me out of the blue. I don't know how he found my name."
James Ritchie said he and Mr Haq became friends at a conference in Rome in 1999. At the time Mr Haq was living in Dubai and Mr Ritchie said he visited him to discuss the idea of forming a loya jirga – a traditional Afghan gathering that could help to agree on a coalition government. Both agreed the coalition would be helped by having the former king's blessing.
Joseph Ritchie claims he was also approached by Mr Haq. "Abdul Haq came to me a year ago and said, 'I think this thing can be pulled out of the fire', and I joined up," Mr Ritchie said. "This was a great man. He had what it takes to get this done."
Some question just who the brothers really represent and where their interests lie. Mr McFarlane has described Joseph Ritchie as "a genuine altruist and a wealthy man trying to do good things". But in a climate of spies, shadow diplomacy, new alliances with old enemies and the battle cry of justice being used to cover up vested interests, just what that means is unclear.
Either way, after the attacks of 11 September, James Ritchie felt he had no option but to travel first to Peshawar to help his friend launch what became the veteran fighter's final journey. His brother stayed in Chicago, waiting, as it were, by the phone.Reuse content