Taliban make further gains as Afghan cities continue to fall

US troops arrive in Kabul to aid evacuation, diplomats prepare to leave city

UN agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan as Taliban insurgent advances heightened the country's crisis, driving thousands of people from their homes and spreading hunger. Video: Reuters

 

Taliban fighters have captured Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern city that was the Afghan government’s last northern stronghold, with security forces fleeing to the Uzbekistan border, a provincial official said on Saturday.

“The Taliban have taken control of Mazar-i-Sharif,” said Afzal Hadid, head of the Balkh provincial council, adding that the city appeared to have fallen without a fight. Soldiers abandoned their equipment and headed towards the border crossing, he said. “All security forces have left Mazar city,” he said, though sporadic clashes were still taking place in one area outside the city centre.

Earlier on Saturday, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has held urgent talks with local leaders and international partners as Taliban rebels pushed closer to Kabul.

The Taliban have begun encircling the Afghan capital after capturing Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, prompting Nato allies to convene a meeting in the wake of the US troop withdrawal.

“As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people,” Mr Ghani said in a brief televised address as the United States and other countries rushed in troops to help evacuate their embassies.

Mr Ghani gave no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign for any talks on a ceasefire and a political settlement, saying “reintegration of the security and defence forces is our priority, and serious measures are being taken in this regard”.

He spoke soon after the insurgents took Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province that is 70km (40 miles) south of Kabul, according to a local provincial council member. The gain of the city, a key staging post for a potential assault on Kabul, comes a day after the Taliban took the country’s second- and third-biggest cities.

US troops have flown into Kabul to help evacuate embassy personnel and other civilians in the Afghan capital a day after Taliban fighters seized the country’s second- and third-biggest cities.

The Pentagon has said three US battalions will arrive in Kabul by Sunday evening, involving about 3,000 troops.

Britain and several other Western nations are also sending troops as resistance from Afghan government forces crumbles and fears grow that a Taliban assault on Kabul could be just days away.

The Islamist militia have seized much of north, south and west Afghanistan and are approaching Kabul in an effort to topple Mr Ghani’s weakened government.

The Taliban now control at least 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. On Friday, four more cities had either fallen or were on the brink of being captured amid heavy fighting.

An Afghan government official confirmed on Friday that Kandahar, the economic hub of the south, was under Taliban control as US-led international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.

Herat in the west, near the border with Iran, also fell to the hardline Islamist group. Kandahar’s loss is a heavy blow to the government and is in the heartland of the Taliban – ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in 1994 amid the chaos of civil war.

Some embassies have begun to burn sensitive material ahead of evacuating, diplomats said.

The US embassy in the Afghan capital informed staff that burn bins and an incinerator were available to destroy material including papers and electronic devices to “reduce the amount of sensitive material on the property,” according to an advisory seen by Reuters.

‘Spinning out of control’

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres warned “Afghanistan is spinning out of control” and urged all parties to do more to protect civilians.

“This is the moment to halt the offensive. This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war, or the isolation of Afghanistan,” Mr Guterres told reporters in New York.

Many people in the capital were stocking up on rice and other food as well as first aid, residents said. Visa applications at embassies were running in the tens of thousands, officials said.

The explosion in fighting has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a reversal of gains in human rights. Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes this year, 250,000 of them since May, a UN official said.

Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul.

The speed of the Taliban’s gains has led to recriminations over the US withdrawal, which was negotiated last year under the administration of President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

Mr Biden said this week he did not regret his decision to follow through with the withdrawal. He noted Washington has spent more than $1 trillion and lost thousands of troops over two decades, and called on Afghanistan’s army and leaders to step up. – Reuters