The Taliban have scored yet more battlefield victories across Afghanistan and are quickly closing in on Kabul as the country's western-trained security forces surrender en masse after putting up little resistance.
The hardliners captured Pul-i-Alam in Logar province on Friday, bringing them within 60 kilometres of Kabul's southern city limits. In the past eight days, the Taliban have taken control of half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and conquered at least 18 of its provincial capitals.
Senior Afghan security officials told The National the government is deeply concerned by the successive losses and questions are swirling over how long President Ashraf Ghani can stay in power.
“We are very worried about the recent development, particularly in the eastern region. Unfortunately, we lost Pul-i-Alam today and that has brought the terrorists to Kabul’s doorstep,” one official said.
“They have been fighting all morning, but as of now, the Taliban have control of Pul-i-Alam. They breached the city gates and have taken over government buildings,” Mohammed Mumtaz, a 37-year-old resident of Logar, told The National.
“There is just one military base that they don’t control, where the Afghan forces have been cornered and are fighting from. If that falls, it will be a big loss to the government because it holds a significant amount of weapons and ammunition,” he added.
After capturing the city centre, the Taliban captured Abdul Qayyum Rahimi, Logar's provincial governor.
“He had been fighting alongside the Afghan forces and the people's uprising. He fought bravely. The chief of [the National Directorate of Security] is still fighting,” Mr Mumtaz said.
There was little local resistance in Logar, Mr Mumtaz observed.
“Unfortunately, after the Taliban declared victory in Pul-i-Alam, I saw some locals cheer for the Taliban because some of them have suffered at the hands of Afghan forces and see the Taliban as a better option,” he said.
The US military has previously said Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days, but even that time frame seems too generous given the Taliban's near-hourly victories.
They have already taken over much of the north and west of the country. And in the south, the militants 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.
The fall of Logar comes a day after the Taliban seized control on Thursday of two important provincial capitals, Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan's second- and third-largest cities that and former government strongholds.
Afghan commandos have resisted the Taliban in some parts of the country but many soldiers have fled or surrendered without firing a shot.
Despite its mounting losses, the government was determined to resist the Taliban advance, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh said, after a meeting of the National Security Council headed by President Ashraf Ghani.
“It was decided with conviction and resolve that we stand firm against the Taliban terrorists and do everything to strengthen the national resistance by all means and ways. Period,” Mr Saleh wrote on Twitter.
The Taliban's long military campaign picked up pace three months ago when US and Nato troops accelerated their withdrawal from Afghanistan. They have now captured over 240 districts and taken control of at least a dozen provincial capitals.
The senior security officials said the government intended to defend and continue to mobilise local “uprising groups” to stop the Taliban's advance.
“We had an extensive security meeting at the Presidential Palace today where we discussed further strategies, and we will also be working closely with the uprising groups to defeat the enemies of Afghanistan,” an official said.
However, in Herat, as in other places, the militants have been taking key leaders of uprising groups prisoner. Among them, Ismail Khan, a former mujahideen leader and local strongman, has been taken captive and has reportedly been forced to join the Taliban.
Several videos shared by the Taliban claim Mr Khan has surrendered and show fighters urging the veteran leader to join their group.
A representative of Mr Khan, however, said he had not joined the Taliban.
“[Mr Khan], through a group of religious scholars, has made a deal to stop the battles to prevent any civilian casualties. He has not surrendered to the Taliban,” Abdul Razaq Ahmadi, Mr Khan’s spokesman, told The National.
“We couldn’t count on the Afghan National Army [to support the fight against the Taliban], so in the end, it was agreed to not fight,” he explained.
He added he felt let down by the Afghan government.
“There wasn’t any other alternative,” he said.
Nato representatives held talks on Afghanistan on Friday, issuing a statement saying that member states are “deeply concerned about the high levels of violence caused by the Taliban’s offensive, including attacks on civilians, targeted killings and reports of other serious human rights abuses".
The swift gains have sent thousands of Afghan civilians streaming to the capital for safety and prompted the US and Britain to send in troops to support the removal of citizens and diplomatic staff.
UN agencies on Friday warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan as Taliban advances drive tens of thousands of people from their homes amid spreading hunger.
Meanwhile, three days of meetings in Qatar between key international players on Afghanistan ended on Thursday without significant progress.
Agencies contributed to this report