KABUL (Dispatches) — The Taliban completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling Kabul, just weeks before the U.S. is set to officially end its two-decade war.
In just the last 24 hours, the country’s second- and third-largest cities — Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south — have fallen to the insurgents as has the capital of the southern Helmand province, officials said Friday.
The blitz through the Taliban’s southern heartland means the insurgents now hold half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and control more than two-thirds of the country — weeks before the U.S. plans to withdraw its last troops. The Western-backed government in the capital, Kabul, still holds a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
While Kabul isn’t directly under threat yet, the resurgent Taliban were battling government forces in Logar province, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the capital. The U.S. military has estimated that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that the Taliban could overrun the rest of the country within a few months. They have already taken over much of the north and west of the country.
In the south, the insurgents swept through the three provincial capitals on Friday.
Attaullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said that the Taliban captured Lashkar Gah following weeks of heavy fighting and raised their white flag over governmental 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 Muhammad and Qudratullah Rahimi, lawmakers from Uruzgan province, said local officials 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 fell to the insurgents.
With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Separately, Britain said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country, and Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy.
Danish broadcaster TV2, meanwhile, quoted Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod as saying that the country’s embassy in Kabul is closing temporarily and staff are being evacuated. Germany is reducing its embassy staff in Kabul to “the operationally necessary, absolute minimum,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters Friday, as he urged all German citizens to leave the country immediately.
Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will return the country to the sort of brutal, repressive rule it imposed when it was last in power at the turn of the millennium. At that time, the group all but eliminated women’s rights and conducted public executions. An early sign of such tactics came in Herat, where insurgents paraded two alleged looters through the streets on Friday with black makeup smeared on their faces.
There are also concerns that the fighting could plunge the country into civil war, which is what happened after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
Peace talks in Qatar between the Taliban and the government remain stalled, though diplomats are still meeting, as the U.S., European and Asian nations warned that battlefield gains would not lead to political recognition.
Local media reports said on Friday that the ceasefire plan aiming to put a halt on the fierce fighting between the two sides for six months was “95% agreed.”
At the invitation of Qatar, special envoys and representatives from China, Russia, Pakistan, the United States and the United Nations, as well as other regional countries and international organizations, have gathered in Doha since August 10 to hold talks over the situation in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Afghan government negotiators in Qatar offered the Taliban a power-sharing deal in return for an end to fighting amid the militants’ rapid advances across the war-torn country.
But the Taliban advance continued. The Taliban, however, have reiterated that they would not participate in any government shared with the Afghan government.
Former U.S. president Donald Trump agreed to pull out forces from Afghanistan under a deal with the Taliban last year. The militants pledged not to attackbut they made no promise not to attack Afghan government forces or people.
A U.S. State Department spokesman had to reject reports that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had called on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to resign and allow the formation of a transitional government.
The spokesman dismissed the reports as “completely incorrect” and said, “The decision on who will lead that country (Afghanistan) is up to the Afghans.”
In an exclusive interview with Press TV, former Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Karim Khoram cast doubt on the Doha peace plan between the government in Kabul and the Taliban as it was formed “on the U.S. will.”
“I do not expect a peace plan that is entirely in the hands of the U.S. administration to be fruitful. Therefore, regional countries need to take the initiative or work together with the U.S. on this issue or at least put pressure on the US to work honestly,” Khoram stressed.
Hasibullah Stanikzai, the head of the Logar provincial council, said fighting was still underway inside Puli-e Alim, with government forces holding the police headquarters and other security facilities. He spoke by phone from his office, and gunfire could be heard in the background. The Taliban, however, said they had captured the police headquarters and a nearby prison.
The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces after the United States spent nearly two decades and $830 billion. U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The fighters now advancing across the country ride on American-made Humvees and carry M-16s pilfered from Afghan forces.
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Afghan army has rotted from within due to corruption and mismanagement, leaving troops in the field poorly equipped and with little motivation to fight. The Taliban, meanwhile, have spent a decade taking control of large swaths of the countryside.
That allowed them to rapidly seize key infrastructure and urban areas once President Joe Biden announced the timeline for the U.S. withdrawal, saying he was determined to end America’s longest war.
A day earlier, in Herat, Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city — a structure that dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great — and seized government buildings.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines.
The insurgents circulated photos and a video showing Khan in their captivity as well as video footage that appeared to show two Afghan military Black Hawk helicopters — provided by the U.S. — that were captured in Herat.
In Kandahar, insurgents seized the governor’s office and other buildings, witnesses said, adding that the governor and other officials fled the onslaught.
The Taliban had earlier attacked a prison in Kandahar and freed inmates inside, officials said.
On Thursday, Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand, said civilians likely had been wounded and killed in airstrikes. U.S. Central Command has acknowledged carrying out several strikes in recent days, without providing details or commenting on the concerns over civilian casualties.
Russia’s Special Presidential Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said in an interview with Sputnik on Friday that the Taliban took Kandahar not following fighting but just because the Afghan army that was trained by NATO and the United States fled the southern city.
“The capture of Kandahar shows exactly what we discussed: it was taken not as a result of fighting with courageous resistance of the Afghan troops, it was seized because the Afghan army, which the Americans and NATO trained so cheerfully, fled,” Kabulov said.
the withdrawing foreign forces,