Taliban insurgents have tightened their grip on Afghanistan after wresting control of its second and third biggest cities despite Western embassies preparations to send in troops to help evacuate staff from the capital, Kabul.
As gathered, the capture of the second-biggest city of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes were said to be a devastating setback for the government as the deadly Taliban insurgency turns into a rout of the security forces.
Confirming the development, a provincial council member, Ghulam Hashimi, thousands of residents have left their homes while some are hiding for fear of been attacked by the terrorists.
“The city looks like a front line, a ghost town. Families have either left or are hiding in their homes,” Hashimi said during a telephone interview from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran.
Referring to the southern economic hub of Kandahar, a government official told journalists that: “following heavy clashes late last night, the Taliban took control.”
The defeats have fuelled fears the U.S.- backed government could fall to the insurgents as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
A U.S. defence official cited U.S. intelligence as saying this week that the Taliban could take Kabul within 90 days. The U.N. World Food Programme sees food shortages in Afghanistan as “quite dire” and worsening, a spokesperson said, adding the situation had all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul.
In response to the Taliban advances, the Pentagon said that it would send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. embassy staff.
Britain said that it would deploy about 600 troops to help its citizens leave while other embassies and aid groups said they too were getting their people out. Canada would also deploy special forces troops to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy staff.
The United Nations has warned that a Taliban offensive reaching the capital would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians” but there is little hope for negotiations to end the fighting with the Taliban apparently set on a military victory.
The Taliban also captured the towns of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officers said. Firuz Koh, capital of central Ghor province, was handed over without a fight, officials said.
The militants, fighting to defeat the government and impose their strict version of Islamic rule, have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals since Aug. 6.
In a blow to anti-Taliban forces, the insurgents detained veteran commander Mohammad Ismail Khan after they seized Herat, a provincial official said, adding that they had promised not to harm him and other captured officials.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed that Khan, who had been leading fighters against the Taliban in recent weeks, was in their custody.