Taliban fighters in Afghanistan captured the strategic city of Ghazni on Thursday, the ninth provincial capital they have seized in a week and another gain after US intelligence said the insurgents could take the capital Kabul within 90 days.
The speed of the Taliban advance has sparked recriminations among many Afghans over US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops and leave the Afghan government to fight alone, ending the United States’ longest war.
Ghazni lies 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Kabul on the ancient route between the capital and the second city of Kandahar. The militants occupied Ghazni’s government agency headquarters after heavy clashes, a security official said.
“All local government officials, including the provincial governor, have been evacuated towards Kabul,” said the official who declined to be identified.
Fighting has also been intense in Kandahar. The city hospital had received scores of bodies of members of the armed forces and some wounded Taliban, a doctor said late on Wednesday.
With the last of the US-led international forces set to leave by the end of this month, the Taliban have taken control of about two-thirds of the country.
Even when the Islamist group ruled the country from 1996-2001, it never controlled all of the north. This time, it appears to be determined to secure it fully before turning its attention to Kabul.
Finding rural districts too hard to defend, government forces have withdrawn to protect Kabul and other cities, prompting thousands of families to flee the provinces in hope of finding safety there.
The Taliban said they had captured Kandahar’s provincial prison.
“Fighting did not stop until 4 a.m. and then after the first prayers it started up again,” said an aid worker in Kandahar.
The Taliban said they had seized airports outside the cities of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply beleaguered government forces.
They said they had also captured the provincial headquarters in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand, a hotbed of militant activity.
Government officials there were not immediately available for comment. Fighting had also flared in the northwestern province of Badghis, its governor said.
Kandahar and other southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan have long been Taliban heartlands but it has been in the north where they have made their biggest gains in recent weeks.
President Ashraf Ghani flew to northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally old warlords he had previously tried to sideline, now needing their support as the enemy closes in.
Under a deal struck between the United States and the Taliban last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack US-led foreign forces as they withdraw, in exchange for a promise not to let Afghanistan be used for international terrorism.
The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace. But intermittent talks with representatives of the US-backed government have made no progress, with the insurgents apparently intent on a military victory.
Al Jazeera reported that a government source said the government had offered the Taliban a share in power as long as the violence comes to a halt.
Government spokesmen were not immediately available for comment and it was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed at stalled talks in Qatar.
In Washington, a US defence official on Wednesday cited US intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
Biden said on Tuesday he did not regret his decision to withdraw US forces and urged Afghan leaders to fight for their homeland.
The Taliban risk isolating the country if they do seize overall control.
“Attempts to monopolize power through violence, fear, and war will only lead to international isolation,” the charge d’affaires at the US embassy, Ross Wilson, said on Twitter.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would not provide financial support to Afghanistan if the Taliban take over and introduce sharia religious law.
The violence has also raised concerns in Europe of more refugees arriving there. Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have said they would not, for now, deport Afghans seeking asylum.
The Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan before they were ousted in 2001 for harbouring al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
A new generation of Afghans, who have come of age since 2001, worry that the progress made in areas such as women’s rights and media freedom over the past two decades will be lost.
The United Nations said more than 1 000 civilians had been killed in the past month, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said some 4 042 wounded people had been treated at 15 health facilities since August 1.
On Wednesday, the Taliban denied targeting or killing civilians and called for an investigation.