US President Joe Biden says his administration warned Taliban against any action putting US personnel at risk.
The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan’s Jalalabad without a fight, according to officials and a resident, effectively leaving the capital, Kabul, as the last major urban area under government control.
The key eastern city, which is also the capital of Nangarhar province, fell early on Sunday morning. Its fall followed the Taliban’s seizure of Mazar-i-Sharif, a major northern city.
The armed group posted photos online on Sunday showing its members in the governor’s office in Jalalabad.
“We woke up this morning to the Taliban white flags all over the city,” said resident Ahmad Wali, confirming the Taliban’s social media claim. “They entered without fighting,” he told the AFP news agency.
Abrarullah Murad, a legislator from the province, told The Associated Press that the group seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there.
Another Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters there were no clashes in the city “because the governor has surrendered to the Taliban”.
“Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives,” the official added.
A Western security official also confirmed the fall of the city and said it put the Taliban in control of the roads connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Panic in Kabul
The Taliban has swept through the country in recent weeks as US-led forces withdrew. Its campaign accelerated to lightning speed in the last week, capturing Kandahar and Herat, the country’s second- and third-largest cities, and shocking Western countries as the Afghan military’s defences appeared to collapse.
On Saturday, Taliban fighters entered Mazar-i-Sharif virtually unopposed as security forces escaped up the highway to neighbouring Uzbekistan, about 80km (50 miles) to the north, provincial officials said. Unverified video on social media showed Afghan army vehicles and men in uniforms crowding the iron bridge between the Afghan town of Hairatan and Uzbekistan.
Two influential militia leaders supporting the government – Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum – also fled. Noor said on social media that a “conspiracy” had given the Taliban control of Balkh province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located.
As Kabul looked increasingly isolated as a government stronghold, Afghans streamed into the city, fleeing the provinces and fearing a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule.
Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis, reporting from the Afghan capital, said there was an increasing sense of panic in the city.
“As of now, Kabul is the last big city the government still holds. It is unbelievable to think that nine days ago, the Taliban did not hold a single provincial capital and had not done so in the past five years,” she said.
“There is a lot of panic in Kabul. The city has swelled with tens of thousands of people from the provinces fleeing here. There’s also been a run on the banks. Prices have gone up, including of fuel and food.”
In a statement late on Saturday, the Taliban said its rapid gains showed it was popularly accepted by the Afghan people and reassured both Afghans and foreigners that they would be safe.
It said it “will, as always, protect their life, property and honour and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” it said, adding that diplomats and aid workers would also face no problems.
Despite the Taliban’s assurances, Western governments are accelerating plans to evacuate embassy staff and citizens, as well as Afghans who had worked for them.
US President Joe Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an “orderly and safe” drawdown of US military personnel.
Biden said his administration had told Taliban officials in Qatar that any action that put US personnel at risk “will be met with a swift and strong US military response”.
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 armed group appears to have little interest in making concessions as it racks up victories on the battlefield.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, meanwhile, delivered a televised speech on Saturday, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains. He pledged not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001.
“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.
“Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.