Taliban Poised to Capture Afghan Cities of Herat, Kandahar

KABUL (Reuters) -
Taliban fighters record a message after seizing Pul-e- Khumri, capital of Baghlan province, Afghanistan, in this still image taken from a social media video, uploaded August 10, 2021. (Taliban Handout via REUTERS)

Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat, was on the verge of falling to the Taliban on Thursday amid heavy fighting, as the militant group also established a bridgehead within 150 km (95 miles) of Kabul.

The Taliban claimed control of Herat, near the border with Iran. And in what would be its most significant two victories since it began cutting a swathe through the country in May, the group also appeared close to capturing Kandahar, a diplomatic source said.

Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, is the group’s spiritual home.

The spiralling violence and the militants’ swift advances prompted the United States and Germany to urge its citizens to leave the country immediately, just under three weeks before the last of the U.S.-led international force are due to pull out.

The State Department is expected to announce an evacuation of a “significant” number of employees from its embassy in Kabul as the Taliban make rapid gains in Afghanistan, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the military would help with the evacuation, a standard practice in conflict zones, leading to some additional forces in the country temporarily.

The move would be one of the most significant signs of concern in President Joe Biden’s administration about the security situation and the failure of the Afghan government to protect key cities.

There are thought to be about 1,400 staff remaining at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Earlier on Thursday the Taliban, who now control about two-thirds of the country, captured Ghazni, situated on the Kandahar to Kabul road some 150 km from the capital.

The group on Thursday also ruled out sharing power with the government.

The speed and violence of its offensive have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over U.S. President Joe
Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and leave the government to fight alone.

On Wednesday, a U.S. defence official cited U.S. intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30
days and possibly take it over within 90.

The gateways to the capital have been choked with people fleeing violence elsewhere in the country this week, a Western security source said.

Urging its citizens to leave the country, the U.S. Embassy said that given security conditions and reduced staffing, its “ability to assist U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul,” according to a notice on its
website.

Germany issued a similar warning to its citizens.

Al Jazeera reported a government source saying it had offered the Taliban a share in power, as long as the violence
comes to a halt.

Afghan government spokespeople were not immediately available for comment and it was not clear to what extent the reported offer differed from terms already discussed at stalled talks 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.