The United States and Britain said on Thursday they would send thousands of troops to Afghanistan to protect and help evacuate civilians, as the Taliban stood poised for their two biggest military victories since they began a broad offensive in May.
In response to the terrorists’ swift and violent advances that are further loosening the Afghan government’s hold on the country, the Pentagon said it would temporarily send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate embassy staff.
Britain said it would deploy around 600 troops to help its nationals and local translators get out.
While it is common for the US military to send in troops to evacuate personnel in combat zones, the reinforcements will fly in just weeks before the departure of the last of the U.S.-led international force that has had a core role in maintaining security in the country.
Meanwhile, south and west of Kabul, the country’s second and third largest cities were on the verge of being seized by the Taliban.
The Islamist group claimed control over Herat close to the Iranian border, and a diplomatic source and a witness said it also appeared close to capturing Kandahar in the south, the spiritual home of the group that now controls about two-thirds of the country.
Earlier in the day, the Taliban established a bridgehead within 150 km (95 miles) of Kabul.
As the United Nations warned that a Taliban offensive reaching the capital would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians,” the United States, as well as Germany, urged their citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately.
In Qatar, international envoys to Afghan negotiations called for an accelerated peace process as a “matter of great urgency,” and for an immediate halt to attacks on cities.
‘WE ARE RETURNING TO A DARK TIME’
If its capture is confirmed, Herat would be the 10th provincial capital – and the most significant – that the Taliban have taken in the past week.
The group’s spokesperson, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said the city governor’s office had been seized, and government forces were surrendering.
“As you can see, we are inside the Herat police headquarters right now,” a Taliban fighter said in a video that Ahmadi shared.
In Kandahar, most parts of the city were under the group’s control but fighting was still going on, a Taliban commander told Reuters.
A women’s rights activist there, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said heavy clashes were under way and only the city’s military bases and airport remained under government control.
She felt certain that restrictions imposed on women by the Taliban when the group ruled the country from 1996-2001 would return.
“We can no longer talk about women’s rights. We are returning to a dark time where there is no hope,” she said.
Earlier on Thursday the Taliban captured Ghazni, situated on the Kandahar to Kabul road some 150 km (90 miles) southwest of the capital.
On Wednesday, a U.S. defence official cited US intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
With phone lines down across much of the country, Reuters was unable to contact government officials to confirm which of the cities under attack remained in government hands.
URGED TO LEAVE
The speed and violence of the Taliban offensive have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops and leave the government to fight alone.
President Ashraf Ghani flew to northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally old warlords he had previously tried to sideline, now needing their support.
Al Jazeera reported a government source saying it had offered the Taliban a share in power if the violence stopped. It was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed in Qatar.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said he was unaware of any such offer but ruled out sharing power.
“We won’t accept any offer like this because we don’t want to be partner with the Kabul administration. We neither stay nor work for a single day with it,” he said.
UN URGES SETTLEMENT
In a deal struck with the United States last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack U.S.-led foreign forces as they withdraw. The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace.
But intermittent talks with representatives of the US-backed government have made no progress, with the insurgents apparently intent on a military victory.
The United Nations said more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the past month. On Wednesday, the Taliban denied targeting or killing civilians and called for an investigation.
The group, which ruled the country from 1996-2001, said it had seized airports outside the cities of Kunduz and Sheberghan in the north and Farah in the west, making it even more difficult to supply government forces.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)