When the history of this war in Afghanistan comes to be written, brutal events may well be recorded as the moment when it first began to turn into a fiasco.
Abdul Haq, one of the most charismatic leaders among the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, met an ignominious death at the hands of the Taliban, executed after being captured in the course of a quixotic mission to stir up the Pashtun against the ruling regime, in his home area of eastern Afghanistan.
That mission began last Sunday when, after five years of exile, Haq crossed into Afghanistan with a handful of men, his attempts to obtain help from the US and Britain, having been spurned. He was, according to the Taliban version, surrounded in his home village by an overwhelming force and captured as he attempted a getaway on horseback. Hours later, he was put to death along with two companions.
His loss is disturbing in at least three ways: as a setback for the campaign to destabilise the Taliban; as a jolting reminder of how strong their political control remains; and as a brutal end to a man who had exchanged the life of a holy warrior for that of a moderate politician.
Apart from his brilliance as a guerrilla commander, and his skills as a political consensus-builder, Abdul Haq was loved by his men. Even before the worst of the news came through yesterday, there was an atmosphere of grief and foreboding.
Soon after the reports of his arrest by the Taliban, his older brother, Deen Mohammed, and two other male relatives gave a press conference in the Pakistan city of Peshawar, Commander Haq's home in exile. All were experienced mujahedin, veterans of 22 years of death and civil war. But their faces were downcast and their eyes were reddened.
"I request the governments of the United States, Britain, and all other concerned parties, to bring pressure on the Taliban to release the commander," said Mr Mohammed. There was never much real hope of this but, in any case, it was probably too late.
By early evening, the reports were coming through that Abdul Haq was dead, executed by the Taliban. With him dies one of the great hopes for a peaceful Afghanistan.
Abdul Haq was born in 1958 in a country at war for almost his whole adult life. He learned to be a soldier during the 10-year struggle against the Soviet Union after their invasion in 1979. In the 1980s, he lost part of his right foot to a Soviet landmine, but he established himself as one of the boldest, bravest and cleverest of the mujahedin commanders. When the Russians established their puppet government in Kabul, Haq was among the few commanders to launch successful raids into the capital.
One famous incident concerned a tank, reputedly the one which fired the first shots of the Soviet-backed "revolution" and which had been installed in front of the presidential palace. Haq's men crept into the city and blew the monument up, to the humiliation and fury of their enemies.
By reputation at least, he remained untainted by the venality of many of his fellow mujahedin. While other Pashtun commanders spent most of their time in Peshawar, often fighting each other and intimidating Western aid workers trying to help Afghan refugees, he stayed in Afghanistan fighting the Russians. Most importantly, he refused to join the payroll of the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, which bankrolled first its favourites, the mujahedin, and later the force which replaced them, the Taliban.
When the communist regime fell, he was awarded the job of police chief in Kabul, but watched in disgust as his former comrades tore the capital apart in internecine battles. When the Taliban took over, he settled in Peshawar but, in 1999, his wife, his 11-year-old son, and their bodyguard were gunned down in front of their home by an unknown assassin. Suspicion fell on the Taliban, though Haq always said he did not know who was responsible.
The loss seemed to have driven him out of politics altogether. "He forsook weapons and decided to fight no longer," his brother said yesterday. He left Pakistan for Dubai where he worked as a businessman.
But Haq continued to operate behind the scenes, attempting to build an ambitious coalition to lure away moderate and wavering elements in the Taliban with the promise of a new, less harsh and more broad-based government convened by the exiled former king, Zahir Shah, whose family pleaded in vain yesterday for him to be spared.
Then came the events of 11 September, and the bombing campaign, which – to Haq's frustration – changed everything. The moderates were driven into a corner, the militants were vindicated in their xenophobic chauvinism, and the peace plan was put on hold.
On 9 October, he stood alongside Pir Ahmad Gailani, the senior figure among moderate former mujahedin, and supported his call for a conference of Afghan leaders. But by the time the meeting was held, on Wednesday and Thursday this week, he had lost his patience. Exactly what he hoped to achieve remains unclear.
According to his brother, he secretly entered Afghanistan on 21 October, via the Pakistani town of Parachinar, and made for his home village of Azra. Mr Mohammed said he was accompanied by only a handful of men and was completely unarmed – a most unlikely possibility, given his own history as a warrior and the extreme danger of any kind of travel through Afghanistan.
"He had a satellite phone because it was the only means of communication," said Mr Mohammed. "But anyone who says he had guns is wrong."
His brother said: "He didn't go to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, he went to persuade the local people to turn against them." In any realistic uprising against the Taliban, the two goals will be one and the same.
There are some who will see Abdul Haq as a has-been: a former hero who had grown soft in exile and who wrongly imagined that his prestige alone would enable him to stir a rebellion against the Taliban. Brave, certainly, but unwilling to recognise that a plump, balding man of 43 was not as likely to elude capture as his leaner, warier former self.
His swift execution by the Taliban, however, shows that they still saw him as a force to be feared. Many of his former comrades had thrown in their lot with the movement when it conquered Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, but their admiration for him might have eroded their loyalty.
From the regime's point of view, there is no doubt that Abdul Haq represented a deadly threat and a rich prize. Peshawar sources say he died on the personal orders of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
How did they capture him? It can only have been an act of betrayal, and this is perhaps the most depressing lesson of the death of Abdul Haq. Not only that he is dead, or that his mission failed, but that, despite the apparent desperation of their position, the Taliban still command enough support to win the head of a much loved commander in his own territory.
He always feared that the bombing campaign would rally Afghans to the Taliban, and his end may have proved him right.Reuse content