Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Herat, was on the verge of falling to the Taliban on Thursday amid heavy fighting, as the militant group also established a bridgehead within 150 kilometres of the capital Kabul.
The Taliban claimed control of Herat and — in what would be its most significant two victories since it began cutting a swath through the country in May — also appeared close to capturing Kandahar, a diplomatic source said.
Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the spiritual home of the Taliban, which now control about two-thirds of the country.
Two U.S. officials told Reuters that the U.S. State Department was expected to announce that a significant number of employees from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul would be relocated as the Taliban press their advance.
WATCH | More cities fall in Afghanistan: Afghan civilians flee Taliban’s unchecked advancesThe Taliban takeover of Afghan cities continued on Friday as thousands of residents fled the onslaught, with many headed for the relative safety of Kabul. (Mohammad Asif Khan/Photo) 3:33
They said the U.S. military would help with the relocation, leading to some additional forces in the country temporarily — just under three weeks before the last of the U.S.-led international forces are due to pull out.
It was not yet clear if the embassy staff would be relocated in or outside Afghanistan. The militants’ swift advances earlier prompted the United States and Germany to urge their citizens to leave the country immediately.
Capture of police headquarters in Herat
Kandahar and other southern and eastern areas bordering Pakistan have long been Taliban heartlands, while Herat is on the other side of the country near the border with Iran.
“As you can see, we are inside the Herat police headquarters right now,” a Taliban fighter said in a video shared by the group’s spokesperson, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi.
Ahmadi later said the Herat governor’s office had been taken, and government forces were surrendering.
If its capture is confirmed, Herat would be the 10th provincial capital — and the most significant — that the Taliban have taken in the past week.
Ghazni captured Thursday
In Kandahar, most parts of the city were under the group’s control, but fighting was still going on, a Taliban commander told Reuters.
Earlier on Thursday the Taliban captured Ghazni, situated on the Kandahar to Kabul road, some 150 km southwest of the capital.
A Taliban flag flies at a square in the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan, after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces on Thursday. (Gulabuddin Amiri/The Associated Press)
With phone lines down across much of the country, Reuters was unable to contact government officials to confirm which of the cities under attack remained in government hands.
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 over within 90.
The speed and violence of its offensive have sparked widespread recriminations among many Afghans over U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and leave the government to fight alone.
Seeking support from warlords
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally old warlords he had previously tried to sideline, now needing their support.
Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Farah, capital of Farah province, southwest Afghanistan, on Wednesday. (Mohammad Asif Khan/The Associated Press)
Urging its citizens to leave the country, the U.S. Embassy said that given security conditions and reduced staffing, its “ability to assist U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul,” according to a notice on its website.
Germany issued a similar warning to its citizens.
Al Jazeera reported a government source saying it had offered the Taliban a share in power, as long as the violence comes to a halt.
Afghan government spokespeople were not immediately available for comment, and it was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed at stalled talks in Qatar.
WATCH | Taliban extends its control: Majority of Afghanistan back under Taliban controlThe swift advance of Taliban forces in recent weeks has put most of the country under insurgent control, as countries including Canada reflect on its fate. 1:57
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said he was unaware of any such offer but ruled out sharing power.
“We won’t accept any offer like this because we don’t want to be partner with the Kabul administration. We neither stay nor work for a single day with it,” he said.
Taliban set on victory
In a deal struck with the United States last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdraw. The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace.
But intermittent talks with representatives of the U.S.-backed government have made no progress, with the insurgents apparently intent on a military victory.
Internally displaced Afghan families walk past their temporary tents at Sara-e-Shamali in Kabul on Wednesday. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday he hoped that talks this week in Doha would “restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.”
The UN said more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the past month. On Wednesday, the Taliban denied targeting or killing civilians and called for an investigation.
The group, which ruled the country from 1996-2001, said it had seized airports outside the cities of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply government forces.
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