The Taliban completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that brought them closer to Kabul, weeks before the US is set to officially end its two-decade war.
In the past 24 hours, the country’s second- and third-largest cities — Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south — have fallen to the insurgents as has the capital of the southern province of Helmand, where American, British and Nato forces fought some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict.
The blitz through the Taliban’s southern heartland means the insurgents now hold half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and control more than two thirds of the country. The western-backed government in the capital Kabul still holds a smattering of provinces in the centre and east, as well as the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
While Kabul is not yet directly under threat, the resurgent Taliban were battling government forces in Logar province, some 80 kilometres from the capital.
The US military has estimated that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that the Taliban could overrun the rest of the country within a few months. They have already taken over much of the north and west of the country.
In the south, the insurgents swept through three provincial capitals on Friday.
Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said that the Taliban had captured Lashkar Gah following weeks of heavy fighting and raised their white flag over government buildings. He said that three national army bases outside of the city remain under control of the government.
Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council chief in Zabul province, said the local capital of Qalat fell and that officials were in a nearby army camp preparing to leave.
Bismillah Jan Mohammed and Qudratullah Rahimi, officials from Uruzgan province, said local leaders had surrendered Tirin Kot. Taliban fighters paraded through a main square there, driving a Humvee and a pickup seized from Afghan security forces.
In the country’s west, meanwhile, Fazil Haq Ehsan, head of the provincial council in Ghor province, said its capital, Feroz Koh, also had also fallen to the insurgents.
Western embassies and aid agencies began evacuating civilian staff from Afghanistan on Friday after the Taliban claimed to have captured two of its biggest cities in an advance that has raised fears of the collapse of the Kabul government.
The capture of Kandahar and Herat — the country's second- and third-largest cities — would represent the Taliban's two most significant victories since they began a broad offensive in May as US-led foreign forces withdrew under a deal struck between the militants and the US last year.
In response to the Taliban's swift and violent advances, the Pentagon said it would send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help remove US embassy staff from the country.
Britain said it would send around 600 troops to help its citizens leave while other embassies and aid groups said they, too, were taking their people out.
“It's best to reduce our footprint not just because there's an increasing threat of violence but also resources,” an official at the Turkish embassy in Kabul said on Friday.
“Medical facilities are under massive pressure. We also are mindful of Covid-19 and testing has almost come to a pause.”
The speed of the Taliban offensive has sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw American troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban after the September 11 attacks on the US.
Mr Biden said this week he did not regret his decision, noting Washington has spent more than $1 trillion in America's longest war and lost thousands of troops.
The US State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the US “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan”. They also said the US was committed to supporting a political solution.
“Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs' Square,” a Taliban spokesman tweeted on an officially recognised account.
The claim was backed up by officials and residents, who told AFP that government forces had withdrawn en masse to a military site outside the southern city.
Hours later, the Taliban said they had also taken control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighbouring Helmand province.
A security source confirmed the fall of the city, telling AFP the Afghan military and government officials had evacuated the city after striking a local ceasefire deal with the militants.
The government has now effectively lost control of most of the country, following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has stunned Kabul's American backers.
Along with Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the government still holds Jalalabad near the Pakistani border.
The UN has said that a Taliban offensive reaching the capital would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians” but there is little hope for negotiations to end the fighting with the Taliban apparently set on a military victory.
In the withdrawal deal struck with former US president Donald Trump's administration last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack US-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
They also made a commitment to discuss peace but intermittent meetings with government representatives have proved fruitless. International envoys to Afghan negotiations in Qatar called for an accelerated peace process as a “matter of great urgency” and for a halt to attacks on cities.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said this week the Taliban had refused to negotiate unless Mr Ghani resigned. Many people on both sides would view that as tantamount to the government's surrender, leaving little to discuss but terms.
The UN Security Council was discussing a draft statement that would condemn the Taliban attacks, threaten sanctions and affirm the non-recognition of their leadership of Afghanistan, diplomats said.