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The Taliban captured Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and began encircling Kabul, prompting Nato allies to convene a meeting in the wake of the US troop withdrawal.
The Islamist militia also captured Lashkar Gah in Helmand province after weeks of fierce fighting and now controls at least 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. On Friday, four more cities had either fallen or were on the brink of being captured amid heavy fighting.
The Taliban has seized much of north, south and west Afghanistan and is approaching the capital Kabul in an effort to topple President Ashraf Ghani’s weakened government.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, on Friday said the members of the transatlantic alliance had met and were “deeply concerned about the high levels of violence caused by the Taliban’s offensive, including attacks on civilians, targeted killings, and reports of other serious human rights abuses”. Nato is committed to a “political solution to the conflict”, he added in a statement.
But Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, separately warned that Afghanistan could again become a haven for international terrorists such as al-Qaeda, whose presence in the country prompted the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban from power almost 20 years ago.
“I’m absolutely worried that failed states are breeding grounds for those types of people,” he told Sky News.
Wallace criticised Washington’s decision to stand by its target of withdrawing the remaining troops by the end of the month, saying: “I felt this was not the right time or decision to make because of course al-Qaeda will probably come back.” He also told the BBC that Afghanistan was “heading towards civil war”.
The British government said on Friday that prime minister Boris Johnson would hold a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to “discuss the current situation” in the country.
The US and UK said they would send troops to Kabul to evacuate embassy staff as fears mounted that the capital could come under imminent attack if a political settlement was not reached. The Taliban has shown little appetite for such a deal.
The Pentagon is sending 3,000 troops in the next two days and a back-up detachment of 3,500 soldiers to Kuwait in case the security situation deteriorates further. The UK will deploy a further 600 soldiers to speed up evacuations of some diplomatic personnel and Afghans who worked with British forces.
After storming across much of Afghanistan’s countryside in recent months, the Taliban have in the space of a week toppled a succession provincial capitals, altering the balance of power in the country.
After recently capturing Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah, only Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern stronghold of local anti-Taliban warlords, and Jalalabad, to the south of Kabul, are the last big towns resisting the Islamists outside the capital. The Taliban now controls well over half of the country’s territory.
Even as the Islamist militants pressed their offensive, Taliban representatives were in Qatar for talks with a range of governments including the US, UK, Pakistan, China, India and several others.
In a statement issued late on Thursday, Doha said the participants in the talks had agreed on the need to “accelerate efforts to reach a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire as quickly as possible”.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan, demanded “an immediate end to attack against cities” and warned that “a government-imposed by force will be a pariah state”.
However, analysts doubted that the Taliban leaders in Qatar had control over the insurgent group’s ground troops, many of whom were operating autonomously in their local regions.
“The question is to what extent are Mullah Baradar [the Taliban co-founder] and his crew in Doha are going to be able to shape the mind of hardened fighters who have never been in an aeroplane,” said Rudra Chaudhuri, a lecturer at the King’s College London’s department of war studies.
“It doesn’t seem to me that a motorcycle-riding Taliban leader with a Kalashnikov is very interested in what Baradar says.”
The Taliban’s advance
US president Joe Biden announces the withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that sparked the war. The deadline is later moved forward to August 31.
The Taliban launches an attack on Afghan forces in southern Helmand province and mounts an offensive in six other provinces.
US troops pull out of Bagram air base, their main military base in Afghanistan. The base, an hour-long drive north of Kabul, was where the US military co-ordinated its air war and logistical support for its mission in Afghanistan. The move effectively ends the country’s involvement in the conflict.
The Taliban seizes its first local capital, Zaranj, in the southwestern Nimroz province. Afghan officials and armed forces fled the onslaught, escaping into neighbouring Iran. The following day the group takes Sheberghan, the capital of northern Jowzjan province.
Biden says he does not regret his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. “They have got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” he says of the country as the Taliban continues its offensive, capturing nine provincial capitals by the following morning.
The Taliban captures Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, having seized Herat, the third-biggest city, a day earlier. It ends a week in which the insurgents captured at least 14 provincial capitals.
Additional reporting by Sarah Provan and Sebastian Payne in London