The Taliban seized more major cities on Friday as they raced towards full control of Afghanistan and inched closer to Kabul, with the United States and Britain deploying thousands of troops to evacuate their citizens from the capital.
The evacuation orders came as the Taliban took control of Kandahar — their spiritual heartland and the nation’s second-biggest city — leaving only Kabul and small pockets of holdouts in government hands.
The scale and speed of the onslaught has shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.
Security forces have capitulated on fronts, with individual soldiers, units and even whole divisions surrendering — handing the insurgents even more vehicles and military hardware to fuel their lightning advance.
Pul-e-Alam, capital of Loghar province, was the latest city to fall Friday, putting the Taliban just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Kabul.
Khairddin Logari, a resident of the capital, summed up the confusion.
“We don’t know what is going on,” he told AFP.
The Taliban offensive was launched in early May after US President Joe Biden ordered the start of a final withdrawal due to be complete by the end of the month, leaving the battlefield to the insurgents.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said Friday the hasty pullout had been “a mistake”.
Earlier Friday, officials and residents in Kandahar told AFP that government forces had withdrawn en masse to a military facility outside the southern city.
“Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square,” a Taliban spokesman tweeted, referring to a city landmark.
Hours later, the Taliban said they had also taken control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighbouring Helmand province.
A security source confirmed the fall of the city, telling AFP that the Afghan military and government officials had evacuated Lashkar Gah after striking a local ceasefire deal with the militants.
While there have been widespread reports of atrocities by the Taliban, fears that they would exact a punishing revenge on their opponents are so far unfounded.
In Herat on Friday, the Taliban captured the city’s long-time strongman Ismail Khan, who helped lead the defence of the provincial capital along with his militia fighters.
The warlord’s spokesman later confirmed Khan had been allowed to return to his residence following negotiations with the insurgents.
Washington and London announced plans late Thursday to pull out their embassy staff and citizens from the capital.
“This is not abandonment,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, while noting the embassy would remain open.
“This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal.”
The Pentagon said 3,000 US troops would be deployed to Kabul within the next 24 to 48 hours, underscoring they would not be used to launch attacks against the Taliban.
Britain was deploying around 600 troops to help evacuate its roughly 3,000 nationals from the country, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the “vast bulk” of remaining embassy staff in Kabul would return to the UK.
Other nations, including Denmark, Norway, and Germany, announced their Kabul embassies would be temporarily shuttered or operations reduced due to security concerns.
Helicopters flitted back and forth between the airport and the sprawling US diplomatic compound in Kabul’s heavily fortified green zone — 46 years after choppers evacuated Americans from Saigon, signaling the end of the Vietnam War.
The insurgents have taken over more than half the nation’s provincial capitals in the past week and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is now one of the few holdouts remaining.
In Kandahar, resident Abdul Nafi told AFP the city was calm after the government forces pulled out early Friday.
“I came out this morning, I saw Taliban white flags in most squares of the city… I thought it might be the first day of Eid.”
Pro-Taliban social media accounts have boasted of the vast spoils of war captured by the insurgents, posting photos of armoured vehicles, heavy weapons, and even a drone seized by their fighters at abandoned military bases.
As the rout unspooled, three days of meetings between key international players on Afghanistan ended in Qatar without significant progress.
In a joint statement, the international community, including the United States, Pakistan, the European Union, and China, said they would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force.”