Taliban insurgents tightened their grip on Afghanistan on Friday, wresting control of its second and third biggest cities while Western embassies prepared to send in troops to help evacuate staff from the capital, Kabul.
The capture of the second-biggest city of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes is a devastating setback for the government as the deadly Taliban insurgency turns into a rout of the security forces.
“The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,” provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi said by telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran.
“Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.”
Referring to the southern economic hub of Kandahar, a government official told Reuters: “Following heavy clashes late last night, the Taliban took control.”
The defeats have fuelled fears the U.S.-backed government could fall to the insurgents as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
A U.S. defense official cited U.S. intelligence as saying this week that the Taliban could take Kabul within 90 days.
The U.N. World Food Programme sees food shortages in Afghanistan as “quite dire” and worsening, a spokesperson said, adding the situation had all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe.
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.
In response to the Taliban advances, the Pentagon said it would send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. embassy staff.
Britain said it would deploy about 600 troops to help its citizens leave while other embassies and aid groups said they too were getting their people out.
Canada would also deploy special forces troops to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy staff, the AP reported.
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.
The Taliban also captured the towns of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officers said. Firuz Koh, capital of central Ghor province, was handed over without a fight, officials said.
The militants, fighting to defeat the government and impose their strict version of Islamic rule, have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since Aug. 6.
In a blow to anti-Taliban forces, the insurgents detained veteran commander Mohammad Ismail Khan after they seized Herat, a provincial official said, adding that they had promised not to harm him and other captured officials.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed that Khan, who had been leading fighters against the Taliban in recent weeks, was in their custody.
The speed of the offensive, as U.S.-led foreign forces prepare to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month, has sparked recriminations 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 loss of the economic hub of Kandahar will be a heavy blow to the government. It 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.
Government forces still controlled Kandahar’s airport, which was the U.S. military’s second biggest base in Afghanistan during their 20-year mission, an official said.
Lashkar Gah is the capital of the opium-growing province of Helmand, where British, U.S. and other foreign forces battled the insurgents for years.
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.
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the exit strategy was sending the United States “hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” urging Biden to commit to providing more support to Afghan forces.
“Without it, al Qaeda and the Taliban may celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks by burning down our Embassy in Kabul.”
Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Afghanistan was spiralling into a failed state and civil war in which groups such as al Qaeda would thrive and likely pose a threat to the West again.
In the deal struck with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
They also made a commitment to discuss peace but intermittent meetings with government representatives have gone nowhere. International envoys to Afghan negotiations in Qatar have 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 Ghani resigned.
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.