The Taliban has captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan in a major setback for the government, and the group is approaching the capital less than three weeks before the United States hopes to complete its troop withdrawal.
The fall on Saturday of Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former strongmen had pledged to defend, hands the Taliban control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the centre and east.
Security forces from Mazar-i-Sharif were escaping towards the border, Afzal Hadid, head of the Balkh provincial council, told Reuters news agency.
“The Taliban have taken control of Mazar-i-Sharif,” he said. “All security forces have left Mazar city.” The city appeared to have fallen largely without a fight, although sporadic clashes were continuing nearby, he said.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a legislator from the Balkh province where the city is located, told The Associated Press news agency that the national army surrendered first, which prompted pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of a Taliban onslaught launched earlier on Saturday.
Ebrahimzada said Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former strongmen who command thousands of fighters, had fled the province and their whereabouts were unknown.
The Taliban has made significant advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. It has now seized control of about 22 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces since August 6, leaving the Western-backed government with a smattering of provinces in the centre and east, as well as the capital, Kabul.
US President Joe Biden on Saturday increased the number of American troops being sent to Afghanistan to help evacuate embassy personnel and Afghan civilians, and warned the Taliban, who were headed for Kabul, not to hinder the mission.
After consultations with his national security team, Biden said a total of “approximately 5,000” US soldiers – up from 3,000 – will now be deployed to organise evacuations and the end of the US mission after 20 years on the ground.
On Saturday, the Taliban captured all of Logar province, just south of Kabul, and detained local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, a legislator from the province. She said the Taliban has reached the Char Asyab district, just 11km (7 miles) south of the capital.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had flown to Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defences, meeting several militia commanders, including Dostum and Noor.
On Saturday, Ghani delivered a televised speech, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains. He pledged not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the US toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
The US has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the group appears to have little interest in making concessions as it racks up victories on the battlefield.
“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” Ghani said.
Hours later, his forces suffered one of the biggest setbacks since the Taliban offensive began.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said it was a “huge shock” that the city had fallen so swiftly.
“The resistance has crumbled really very quickly. Mazar-i-Sharif was seen as almost like a fortress in defiance of the Taliban – it was heavily defended and there was ongoing fighting for a number of days,” he said.
However, McBride said with the collapse of other northern provincial centres, it had become very isolated.
“Mazar-i-Sharif was really on its own in this vast expanse of northern Afghanistan. It would have been difficult to keep it supplied; it would have been difficult with food and ammunition and all the rest. Which may have affected [the gov’t forces’] resolve,” he said.
‘No place for women’
Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, with many fearing a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were forbidden to work or attend school, and could not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.
Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover earlier on Saturday in an interview with the AP from Mazar-i-Sharif, before it fell.
“There will be no place for women,” said Mazari, who governs a district of 36,000 people near the northern city. “In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there any more, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes.”
The Taliban has also captured the capital of Paktika, bordering Pakistan, according to Khalid Asad, a lawmaker from the province. He said fighting broke out in Sharan early on Saturday but ended after local elders intervened to negotiate a pullout.
Sayed Hussan Gerdezi, a legislator from the neighbouring Paktia province, said the Taliban seized most of its local capital, Gardez, but that battles with government forces were still under way. The Taliban said it controlled the city.
The Taliban also took control of Maymana, the capital of northern Faryab province, said Fawzia Raoufi, a legislator from the province. The city had been under siege for a month and security forces finally surrendered on Saturday, she said.
Afghans have been streaming into Kabul’s international airport in recent days, desperate to fly out, even as more American troops have arrived to help partially evacuate the US embassy.
“Panic is growing in Kabul,” said Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis. “Most foreigners are evacuating. Among Afghans, most want to get out, too, but their families have also arrived from provinces under Taliban control.
“On top of that, prices are sky-rocketing. Fuel prices have doubled in the last three months and that’s pushing up food prices, too. There was also a run on the banks on Saturday.”
The US invaded shortly after the September 11 attacks, which al-Qaeda planned and carried out while being sheltered by the Taliban. After rapidly overthrowing the Taliban, the US shifted towards nation-building, hoping to create a modern Afghan state after decades of war and unrest.
Earlier this year, President Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of August, pledging to end the US’s longest war. His predecessor, Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.
Biden’s announcement set the latest offensive in motion. The Taliban, which has long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.
“The security situation in the city is getting worse,” said Kawa Basharat, a resident in Mazar-i-Sharif, hours before the city fell. “I want peace and stability; the fighting should be stopped.”