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 Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes is a devastating setback for the government as the Taliban advances turn 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.”
A government official said Kandahar, the economic hub of the south, was under Taliban control.
The defeats have fuelled concern that the US-backed government could fall to the insurgents as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
“The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe,” the UN World Food Programme’s Thomson Phiri told a briefing, adding the agency was concerned about a “larger tide of hunger”.
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 on Thursday it would send about 3 000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate US embassy staff.
Britain said it would deploy about 600 troops to help its citizens leave while other embassies and aid groups said they were also getting their people out.
Canada would also deploy special forces troops to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy staff, the Associated Press reported.
The Taliban could isolate Kabul within 30 days and take it over in 90, US intelligence assessments concluded this week.
The United Nations has said a Taliban offensive reaching Kabul would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians” but there is little hope for a negotiated end to 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 6 August.
After seizing Herat, insurgents detained veteran commander Mohammad Ismail Khan, an 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, was in their custody.
The speed of the offensive, as US-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 US troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban following the 11 Septmeber 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 has lost thousands of troops.
The loss 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 US military’s second biggest base in Afghanistan during their two-decade mission, an official said.
Criticism of Biden
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States remained “invested” in Afghanistan’s security and stability and was committed to supporting a political solution.
But at home, criticism of Biden’s policy has been mounting. The Republican leader in the US Senate, 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,” and urged Biden to commit to providing more support to Afghan forces.
“Without it, al Qaeda and the Taliban may celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks by burning down our Embassy in Kabul.”
British 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.
The fighting has also raised fears of a refugee crisis. Some 400 000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, 250 000 of them since May, a UN official said.
In the deal struck with former President Donald Trump’s administration last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack US-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
They also made a commitment to discuss peace, but intermittent meetings with government representatives have gone nowhere.