Officials reported on Friday that the Taliban had conquered Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, the worst setback for the US-backed government since the insurgents launched a new attack as US forces withdrew.
The Taliban also said they had captured the third-largest city of Herat in the west, Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest.
With phone lines down across much of the country, Reuters was unable to immediately contact government officials to confirm which of those three cities under attack remained in government hands.
Kandahar is the heartland of the Taliban, ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in the province in 1994 amid the chaos of civil war to sweep through most of the rest of the country over the next two years.
“Following heavy clashes late last night the Taliban took control of Kandahar city,” a government official told Reuters after the militants announced they had taken it.
Government forces were still in control of Kandahar’s airport, which was the U.S. military’s second biggest base in Afghanistan during their 20-year mission.
According to Al Jazeera TV, the Taliban’s spokesperson stated that the loss of major cities was an evidence that Afghans welcomed the Taliban.
With response to the Taliban’s quick and brutal advances, the Pentagon said that it would send 3,000 additional troops within 48 hours to assist in the evacuation of US embassy personnel.
Britain said it would send 600 troops to assist its citizens in leaving, while other embassies and humanitarian organisations indicated they would do the same.
“It’s best to reduce our foot-print 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 offensive has sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
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 U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan”. They also said the United States was committed to supporting a political solution.
The Taliban had until recent days focussed their offensive on the north, a region they never fully controlled during their rule and the heartland of Northern Alliance forces who marched into Kabul with U.S. support in 2001.
On Thursday, the Taliban also seized the historic central city of Ghazni, 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Kabul.
The government still holds the main city in the north – Mazar-i-Sharif – and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, as well as Kabul.
On Wednesday, a U.S. defence official cited U.S. intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it within 90.
The United Nations has warned 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 deal withdrawal struck with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
They also promised to talk about peace, but discussions with government representatives have been unsuccessful. International envoys to Afghan talks in Qatar asked for an expedited peace process and an end to city bombings as a “matter of tremendous urgency.”
“We will not close the door on the political route,” a Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan stated this week that the Taliban would not discuss unless Ghani resigned. Many people on both sides would consider that to be the government’s surrender, leaving nothing to debate but terms.
Pakistan officially denies backing the Taliban but it has been an open secret that Taliban leaders live in Pakistan and recruit fighters from a network of religious schools in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military has always regarded the Taliban as the greatest choice for mitigating India’s influence in Afghanistan and neutralising Pashtun nationalism on both sides of a border that Afghanistan has never recognised.
Afghans, including many who have grown up enjoying freedoms since the Taliban’s ouster, have aired their rage on social media, tagging postings with #sanctionpakistan, but there has been little criticism of Pakistan’s role from Western capitals.
The U.N. Security Council was discussing a draft statement that would condemn the Taliban attacks, threaten sanctions, and affirm the non-recognition of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, diplomats said.