The Taliban is now in control of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city and a strategic provincial capital in the country’s west, hours after it seized Ghazni, while “intense fighting” rages between the armed fighters and government forces in Kandahar city.
Herat’s fall on Thursday marked the biggest prize yet for the Taliban, who have taken 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a weeklong blitz, leaving the capital Kabul increasingly isolated.
It further squeezed the country’s embattled government just weeks before the US-led foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years.
Witnesses in Herat described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the Taliban’s control.
Afghan lawmaker Semin Barekzai acknowledged the city’s fall, saying that some officials there had escaped. Witnesses described seeing Taliban fighters once-detained at Herat’s prison now freely moving on the streets.
The capture of Ghazni, meanwhile, cut off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly found themselves under assault as part of a push some 20 years after US and NATO troops invaded and deposed the Taliban government.
While Kabul itself was not directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tightened the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who were estimated to now hold more than two-thirds of the country and are continuing to pressure government forces in several other provincial capitals.
Meanwhile, Taliban and Afghan negotiators met in the Qatari capital Doha for the third day but not agreement was reached. Peace talks so far remain stalled despite US efforts to bring the two sides to agree to a political settlement.
The Taliban military offensive that began in May has displaced tens of thousands, with people fearing the return of Taliban, whose six-year rule was marked by atrocities against ethnic minorities and lack of women’s rights.
Afghan security forces and the West-backed Kabul government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists during the days of fighting, instead issuing video communiques that downplay the Taliban advance.
On Thursday, a top government source told Al Jazeera that the Afghanistan government has made a power-sharing proposal to the Taliban in exchange for a halt in the escalating violence in the country.
The source told Al Jazeera that the offer was presented to the Taliban indirectly through Qatar, which hosts the Taliban’s political office and the continuing Afghan peace talks.
However, the presidential palace in Kabul did not confirm the development.
Fighting in Kandahar
Earlier on Thursday, the Taliban’s capture of Ghazni, just 130km (80 miles) southwest of Kabul and located along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway – could complicate resupply and movement for government forces, as well as squeeze the capital from the south.
In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland, heavy fighting continued in Lashkar Gah, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto the capital of Helmand province.
In neighbouring Kandahar, the Taliban attacked a prison in the capital city and freed inmates inside on Wednesday night, officials said.
On Thursday, Kandahar provincial governor spokesman Bahir Ahmadi acknowledged that the Taliban had entered the capital, also called Kandahar, but said Afghan forces were fighting to push them back.
Even as diplomats met in Doha on Thursday, the success of the Taliban offensive called into question whether they would ever rejoin long-stalled peace talks aimed at moving Afghanistan towards an administration that includes members of the current Afghan government and the Taliban.
Instead, the group could come to power by force – or the country could splinter into factional fighting as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Call for UNSC discussion
The US, which signed an agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, has said that it would not recognise any government that came to power through force.
The government’s High Council for National Reconciliation called for peace talks to resume, saying it had submitted a plan to Qatar, without elaborating.
Amid the deteriorating security situation, Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan government’s chief negotiator, on Thursday called for an “extraordinary and immediate session” of the UN Security Council to discuss the developments in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon said on Thursday it would send about 3,000 additional US troops temporarily to Afghanistan to help secure the drawdown of US embassy personnel at the embassy in Kabul.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the first deployment would occur in the next 24 and 48 hours.