Embassies get staff out of Afghanistan as Taliban claim two big cities
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 US-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 US-led foreign forces withdrew under a deal struck between the militants and the US 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, the Pentagon said it would send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate US 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.
“It's best to reduce our footprint not just because there's an increasing threat of violence but also resources,” an official at the Turkish embassy in Kabul said on Friday.
“Medical facilities are under massive pressure. We also are mindful of Covid-19 and testing has almost come to a pause.”
The speed of the Taliban offensive have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw US troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US.
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 US. 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 US “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan”. They also said the US 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 US support in 2001.
On Thursday, the Taliban also seized the historic central city of Ghazni, 150km (90 miles) 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 US defence official cited US intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
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.
In the deal withdrawal struck with former US. President Donald Trump's administration last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack US-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.
A Taliban spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “We will not close the door to the political track.”
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 neutralise ethnic Pashtun nationalism on both sides of a border that Afghanistan has never recognised.
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.
The UN Security Council was discussing a draft statement that would condemn the Taliban attacks, threaten sanctions, and affirm the non-recognition of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, diplomats said.