Western embassies and aid agencies began evacuating civilian staff from Afghanistan on Friday after the Taliban claimed to have captured two of its biggest cities in an advance that has raised fears of the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.
The capture of Kandahar and Herat – the country’s second and third largest cities – would represent the Taliban’s two most significant victories since they began a broad offensive in May as U.S.-led foreign forces withdrew under a deal struck between the militants and the United States last year.
The fall of major cities was a sign that Afghans welcomed the Taliban, a spokesperson for the group said, according to Al Jazeera TV.
In response to the Taliban’s swift and violent advances within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. embassy staff.
Britain said it would deploy around 600 troops to help its citizens leave while other embassies and aid groups said they too were getting their people out.
The speed of the Taliban offensive have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Biden said this week he did not regret his decision, noting Washington has spent more than $1 trillion in America’s longest war and lost thousands of troops.
The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan”. They also said the United States was committed to supporting a political solution.
The Taliban have focused their offensive on the north, a region they never fully controlled during their 1996-2001 rule, and the heartland of Northern Alliance forces who marched into Kabul with U.S. support in 2001.
On Thursday, the Taliban also seized the historic central city of Ghazni, 150 km southwest of Kabul, before over-running Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south, according to the Taliban and media.
The Taliban also claimed to have captured Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest.
With phone lines down across much of the country, Reuters was unable to immediately contact government officials to confirm which of the cities under attack remained in government hands.
The government still holds the main city in the north – Mazar-i-Sharif – and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, as well as Kabul.
On Wednesday, a U.S. defense official cited U.S. intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
In the deal withdrawal struck with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
They also made a commitment to discuss peace but intermittent meetings with government representatives have proved fruitless. International envoys to Afghan negotiations in Qatar called for an accelerated peace process as a “matter of great urgency” and for a halt to attacks on cities.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said this week the Taliban had refused to negotiate unless Ghani resigned. Many people on both sides would view that as tantamount to the government’s surrender, leaving little to discuss but terms.
Pakistan officially denies backing the Taliban but it has been an open secret that Taliban leaders live in Pakistan and recruit fighters from a network of religious schools in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military has long seen the Taliban as the best option to block the influence of arch rival India in Afghanistan and to neutralize ethnic Pashtun nationalism on both sides of a border that Afghanistan has never recognized.
Afghans, including many who have come of age enjoying freedoms since the Taliban were ousted, have vented their anger on social media, tagging posts #sanctionpakistan, but there has been little criticism from Western capitals of Pakistan’s role.