The Islamists now control 65% of Afghanistan and have taken or threaten to take 11 provincial capitals, a senior EU official said on Tuesday.
Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan’s capital in 30 days and possibly take it over in 90, a US defence official cited US intelligence as saying, as the resurgent militants made more advances across the country.
The official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, said the new assessment of how long Kabul could stand was a result of the Taliban’s rapid gains as US-led foreign forces leave.
“But this is not a foregone conclusion,” the official added, saying that the Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance.
The Islamists now control 65% of Afghanistan and have taken or threaten to take 11 provincial capitals, a senior EU official said on Tuesday. Faizabad, in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, on Wednesday became the eighth provincial capital to be seized by the Taliban.
A doctor based in southern Kandahar said the city was receiving scores of bodies of Afghan forces, and some injured Taliban fighters were also seeking medical support. The fighting was extremely intense in Kandahar city, he said, with constant rocket attacks.
All gateways to Kabul, which lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, were choked with civilians entering the city and fleeing violence elsewhere, a Western security source there said. It was hard to tell whether Taliban fighters were also getting through, the source said.
“The fear is of suicide bombers entering the diplomatic quarters to scare, attack and ensure everyone leaves at the earliest opportunity,” he said.
Foreign countries are trying to ensure their staff leave Kabul quickly, five foreign security officials told Reuters. One said international airlines were also being asked to evacuate staff.
The Taliban want to defeat the US-backed government and reimpose strict Islamic law. The speed of their advance has shocked the government and its allies.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the attacks were against the spirit of a 2020 agreement.
The Taliban committed to talks on a peace accord that would lead to a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” Price said on Wednesday. “All indications at least suggest the Taliban are instead pursuing a battlefield victory.”
“Attacking provincial capitals and targeting civilians is inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement,” he said.
The Taliban deny targeting civilians.
Price said the United States was working to forge an international consensus behind the need for a peace accord.
He spoke as envoys from the United States, China, Russia and other countries met in Doha with Taliban and Afghan government negotiators in a bid to break a months-long deadlock in peace talks.
The loss of Faizabad was the latest setback for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who flew to Mazar-i-Sharif to rally old warlords to the defence of the biggest city in the north as Taliban forces closed in.
Jawad Mujadidi, a provincial council member from Badakhshan, said the Taliban had laid siege to Faizabad before launching its offensive on Tuesday.
“With the fall of Faizabad, the whole of the northeast has come under Taliban control,” Mujadidi told Reuters.
US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he did not regret his decision to withdraw and urged Afghan leaders to fight for their homeland.
Washington had spent more than $1 trillion over 20 years and lost thousands of US troops, and continued to provide significant air support, food, equipment and salaries to Afghan forces, he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment about assessments that Kabul could be overtaken by the Taliban in 90 days, which were first reported by the Washington Post.
“We are closely watching the deteriorating security conditions in parts of the country, but no particular outcome, in our view, is inevitable,” she said.
Psaki said the plan to withdraw troops by Aug 31 held and reiterated the administration’s view that Afghan forces have the US support they need to fight back.
The Afghans “need to determine … if they have the political will to fight back and if they have the ability to unite as leaders to fight back,” she said.
But the head of the Afghan reconciliation committee said it was clear the Taliban did not believe in a political solution, Al Jazeera reported on Twitter.
“We support reaching a political solution through negotiation and appointing a mediator or mediators to organize the negotiations,” Abdullah Abdullah said.
The Taliban advances have raised fears of a return to power of the hardline militants who formed in 1994 from the chaos of civil war. They controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when they were ousted by a US-led campaign for harbouring al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
A new generation of Afghans, who have come of age since 2001, fears the progress made in areas such as women’s rights and media freedom will be squandered.
Afghan officials have appealed for pressure on Pakistan to stop Taliban reinforcements and supplies flowing over the border. Pakistan denies backing the Taliban.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Taliban leaders told him earlier this year that they will not negotiate with the Afghan government as long as Ghani remains president.
Ghani is appealing for help from the regional warlords he spent years sidelining as he tried to project the authority of his central government over wayward provinces.
The Taliban have captured districts bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan and China, heightening regional security concerns.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by our staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)