The Taliban have captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan in a major setback for the government.
The fall on Saturday of Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, hands the Taliban control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the centre and east.
Earlier on Saturday, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani held urgent talks with local leaders and international partners on Saturday as Taliban fighters pushed closer to the capital, Kabul.
“As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people,” Ghani said in a brief televised address.
The fighters have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in a breakneck military operation less than three weeks before the United States is set to withdraw its last troops, raising fears of a full takeover or another Afghan civil war.
With the Taliban in control of two-thirds of the war-torn country, thousands have fled via the capital’s international airport. The US and European countries also started evacuating their embassy staff as the Taliban moves closer to the capital, Kabul.
Here were the updates on Saturday:
Biden approves additional forces to help drawdown of personnel from Kabul
US President Joe Biden said he has approved additional military forces to go to Kabul to help safely draw down the American embassy and remove personnel from Afghanistan.
“Based on the recommendations of our diplomatic, military and intelligence teams, I have authorised the deployment of approximately 5,000 US troops to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel,” Biden said, adding it would also be to evacuate some Afghans going through a special visa programme.
A US defence official, speaking to Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity, said of the 5,000 Biden announced, 4,000 were already previously announced but about 1,000 were newly approved and would be from the 82nd airborne division.
Who can stop Taliban advance?
The future of Afghanistan is topping most international agendas this week, with many fearing a return to Taliban rule of 20 years ago.
The group continues to make strong advances across the country, taking control of major cities.
It has also managed to release thousands of prisoners, and looted military barracks, some of which were run, until last month, by the United States.
As hundreds of thousands of Afghans flee their homes trying to find safety elsewhere, President Ashraf Ghani is determined the Taliban will not win.
But what can Ghani do to stop the Taliban?
Sudden fall of Mazar-i-Sharif a ‘huge shock’: AJ correspondent
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said it was a “huge shock” that the city had fallen so swiftly as it was “the last major stronghold of the government in the north”.
“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 that, 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.”
Taliban captures Mazar-i-Sharif, fourth largest Afghan city
Taliban fighters have captured Mazar-i-Sharif, the northern city that was the Afghan government’s last northern stronghold, with security forces fleeing to the Uzbekistan border, a provincial official said.
“The Taliban have taken control of Mazar-i-Sharif,” Afzal Hadid, head of the Balkh provincial council said, adding that the city appeared to have fallen without a fight. Soldiers abandoned their equipment and headed towards the border crossing, he said.
“All security forces have left Mazar city,” he said, though sporadic clashes were still taking place in one area outside the city centre.
Balkh lawmaker Abas Ebrahimzada said the province’s national army corps surrendered first, which prompted the pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of the onslaught.
Kabul overwhelmed by internally displaced
Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul is facing an increasing humanitarian crisis as thousands of people stream into the city to escape violence elsewhere.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride reports from Kabul.
Afghanistan picks Sadat to lead Kabul security affairs
Afghanistan has appointed Lieutenant General Syed Samai Sadat to lead the security affairs of Kabul province, the presidential palace announced.
Sadat was previously in charge of the government’s security efforts in Helmand province. The province fell to the Taliban late last week.
Sadat’s latest appointment comes days after he was selected to lead special operations for the Afghan National Security Forces as the Taliban inches closer to the capital, Kabul.
Taliban gains give investors cause for concern beyond Afghanistan
The Taliban’s rapid advance towards Kabul is not only causing concern about Afghanistan’s future but also about the impact on other countries in the region and their economies.
Iran and then Iraq lie to the west of Afghanistan. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are to the north. But the immediate focus for financial markets and investors is Pakistan to the east.
Pakistan has a large public debt, a sizeable equity market and is dependent on a $6bn International Monetary Fund programme. The prospect of years of violence and waves of refugees will add pressure to its fiscal repair plans.
“It is a very troubling situation and unfortunately has set the region back many years,” said Shamaila Khan, head of emerging market debt at AllianceBernstein. “I think the neighbouring countries will have to deal with an influx of refugees in the coming months/years”.
Qatar urges Taliban to cease fire at meeting in Doha
Qatar said it had urged the Taliban to cease fire and pull back their offensive in Afghanistan during a meeting between the Qatari foreign minister and a top representative of the group in Doha on Saturday.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met the head of the Taliban’s political bureau, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to follow up on peace talks hosted by the Gulf country, the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.
“The foreign minister urged the Taliban at the meeting to let up the escalation and to cease fire,” it said.
Czech Republic evacuates embassy in Kabul
The Czech Republic was evacuating its two diplomats from its embassy in Kabul on Saturday, Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said.
“I have decided on the immediate evacuation of our diplomats to the international airport in Kabul,” Kulhanek said.
Afghan forces repulse major Taliban assault
Afghan forces claimed on Saturday to have repulsed a major Taliban assault by hundreds of fighters in the key northern city of Maymana, killing 27.
At least 2,000 Taliban fighters staged a coordinated assault on the provincial capital of Maymana late on Friday.
“(Twenty-seven) Taliban terrorists were killed and 16 others were wounded in the clash, including Mullah Shoaib, the head of the Taliban’s military commission and a number of Pakistani militants,” Abdul Karim Yurish, spokesman for the police command, told Anadolu news agency.
He added that air strikes were also conducted on the rebels.
German army prepares for large evacuation mission from Kabul
Germany’s armed forces have begun preparations for a mission to Afghanistan to evacuate German citizens and local Afghan employees out of the country, sources told DPA news agency on Saturday.
A measure to authorise the mission was said to be moving quickly through parliament so that the Rapid Forces Division could deploy within a week.
There are currently well over 100 German nationals in Afghanistan, including diplomats and staff at the embassy in Kabul, as well as experts at other ministries and organisations.
President Ghani no longer ‘in control’: Analyst
Haroun Rahimi, a law professor at the American University of Afghanistan, said the Afghan government’s leverage is “shrinking”.
President Ghani is “not in control anymore,” Rahimi told Al Jazeera. “It’s not about President Ghani anymore, it’s about making the transition as bloodlessly, as orderly and as swiftly as possible.”
According to Rahimi, if Kabul falls under pressure, all hopes for a political settlement will be lost.
Rahimi believes that the government needs to be handed over to a transitional authority – one that has the “credibility to negotiate on behalf of the anti-Taliban camp”, with the Taliban for some sort of power-sharing agreement.
We need someone who can credibly negotiate and come to some sort of agreement with TB before all is lost.
Ghani is not that person. Transfer power to an interim authority in exchange for a ceasefire that would give us a moment of respite to avoid worst case scenario. https://t.co/8BbTyjXK2E
— Haroun Rahimi (@harounrahimi1) August 14, 2021
Transition to different government still a possibility, analyst says
Victoria Fontan, professor of peace studies in the American University of Afghanistan, said the “consultations” Ghani referred to in his speech may be for a transition to a different government.
“This is something that the Afghan government proposed a few days ago, and it could be that this solution could end the current violence,” Fontan said.
“However, the Taliban have asked for Ashraf Ghani to step down, and have already rejected this type of negotiated settlement – so, it remains to be seen what happens with the position of President Ghani.”
Fontan added that she does not think the government can withstand the Taliban tide.
“There is a lot of talk in Kabul about the impending independence day on Thursday … Many think that the Taliban are going to go for Kabul this weekend and declare independence,” she said.
President Ashraf Ghani: ‘Consultations with international partners’ under way
In a televised speech, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation for the first time since the Taliban made major gains in recent days.
Ghani said “widespread consultations with representatives of the people and leaders and with our international partners” are being carried out in a “speedy manner”.
“In the current situation, the remobilisation of our security and defense forces is our top priority, and serious steps are being taken in this regard,” he said.
“I would like to assure you as your president … we are going to prevent further displacement of people,” Ghani added, without providing more details.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said the president has become “increasingly embattled by this crisis”.
“There has been an awful lot of speculation that there might be some kind of change in leadership … Even possibly that he might be standing back from government,” McBride said.
But, Ghani seems to have “recommitted himself to carrying on the struggle,” McBride said, despite being under a lot of pressure that a politican solution to the crisis is needed.
Afghan president addresses nation
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is delivering a televised address, his first public remarks since the Taliban made major gains in recent days.
Ghani’s last public appearance was on Wednesday in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the armed group launched a multi-pronged attack early on Saturday.
Taliban captures Pul-e-Alam, local provincial council member says
The Taliban captured the city of Pul-e-Alam, around 70 kilometres (43 miles) from the capital, Kabul, a local provincial council member said.
The Taliban fighters did not face much resistance, he told Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
The city is a key staging post for a potential assault on Kabul.
Kabul seen as relative ‘place of refuge’
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said people who are fleeing the fighting seem to be “drawn towards Kabul”, seeing it as a “place of refuge and relative safety”.
The humanitarian situation, he said, is an “unfolding catastrophe” as influxes of people are coming into the city.
“In the recent weeks or so, we’ve seen people coming mainly from the north where we’ve had fighting. Now that we’ve had an uptick in fighting … [in the south], we will expect to see that reflected in influxes coming into the south of the city,” McBride said.
The government is struggling to cope with the influxes and move people to other temporary camps, he added, while international aid organisations have promised more help.
Taliban seizes province near capital
The Taliban seized a province just south of Afghanistan’s capital.
The armed group captured all of Logar and detained its provincial officials, Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province, said. She said the Taliban has reached the Char Asyab district, just 11km (seven miles) south of the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban has made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second and third-largest cities. It now controls 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Taliban closes in on Kabul as US ramps up Afghan evacuations
The Afghan Taliban tightened its territorial stranglehold around Kabul as refugees from the group’s relentless offensive flooded the capital and about 3,000 US marines returned to oversee emergency evacuations from Afghanistan.
With the country’s second and third-largest cities having fallen into Taliban hands, Kabul has effectively become the besieged last stand for government forces who have offered little or no resistance elsewhere.
The US and other countries are scrambling to airlift their nationals out of Kabul ahead of a feared all-out assault.
Taliban launches multi-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif
An Afghan official said the Taliban launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif, a major city in northern Afghanistan defended by powerful former warlords.
Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor in northern Balkh province, says the Taliban attacked the city from several directions.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had flown to Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defences, meeting with several militia commanders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, who command thousands of fighters.
Weapon seizures ‘massive boon’ for Taliban
The US spent billions supplying the Afghan military with the tools to defeat the Taliban, but the rapid capitulation of the armed forces means that weaponry is now fuelling the armed group’s battlefield successes.
The Taliban’s social media is awash with videos of Taliban fighters seizing weapons caches – the majority supplied by Western powers.
Footage of Afghan soldiers surrendering in the northern city of Kunduz shows army vehicles loaded with heavy weapons and mounted with artillery guns in the hands of the group’s rank and file.
In the western city of Farah, fighters patrolled in a car marked with an eagle swooping on a snake – the official insignia of the country’s intelligence service.
Rush of troops to Kabul tests Biden’s withdrawal deadline
The last-minute decision to send 3,000 US troops to Afghanistan to help partially evacuate the US embassy is calling into question whether President Joe Biden will meet his August 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces.
Officials have stressed the newly arriving troops’ mission is limited to assisting the airlift of embassy personnel and Afghan allies, and they expect to complete it by month’s end.
Republican politicians have already criticised the withdrawal as a mistake and ill-planned, though there is little political appetite by either party to send more troops to fight the Taliban.
Taliban takes over radio station after capturing Kandahar
The Taliban seized a radio station in Kandahar and took to the airwaves. The group released a video in which an unnamed fighter announced the takeover of the city’s main radio station, which has been renamed the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
He said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
The Taliban has operated mobile radio stations over the years, but has not operated a station inside a major city since it ruled the country from 1996-2001. At that time, it also ran a station called Voice of Sharia out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the armed group.
UN chief: Afghanistan ‘spinning out of control’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his first appeal directly to the armed group that he is “deeply disturbed by early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women and journalists”.
“Afghanistan is spinning out of control,” he said. “It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away from them.
“This is the moment to halt the offensive,” Guterres said. “This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war or the isolation of Afghanistan.”
Kabul airport busy as thousands seek to flee
Thousands of Afghans and other travellers have fled the country on flights from Kabul international airport.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters “there is no evacuation of UN staff going on,” but the UN has reduced staff, including in Afghanistan’s second-largest city Kandahar and third-largest city Herat. He said the UN remains “with a very light footprint” in both cities.
The UN has about 300 international staff and almost 3,400 national staff working in Afghanistan, and Dujarric said it is relocating some staff from different places into Kabul.
Pakistan official urges Afghan gov’t to talk with Taliban
Pakistan’s national security adviser is urging Afghan leaders to try to quickly reach a politically negotiated settlement with the Taliban to avoid further violence.
The adviser, Moeed Yusuf, stressed the fall of city after city in neighbouring Afghanistan underscores the need to expedite the peace process.
“Trust me, if they sit down, they will be able to come out with some sort of settlement and we will respect whatever Afghans decide,” Yusuf said.
He added: “History will judge us very badly and poorly if we don’t put all efforts behind [this] for a political settlement” on the Afghan crisis.
Read our previous liveblog here