The Taliban captured a provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, the tenth the insurgents have taken over a weeklong blitz across Afghanistan.
The massive territorial gains come as the US and NATO prepare to withdraw entirely from the country by the end of the month after decades of war.
The Taliban raised their flags over the city of Ghazni, just 130 kilometres southwest of Kabul, online video posted by insurgents showed.
Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated requests for comment over the days of fighting.
However, President Ashraf Ghani is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country’s special forces, the militias of warlords and American airpower.
Kabul under pressure
While the capital of Kabul itself has not been directly threatened in the advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the slivers of the country it has left.
Ghazni sits along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, a major road that connects the Afghan capital to the country's southern provinces.
Already, the Taliban's weeklong blitz has seen the militants seize nine other provincial capitals around the country. Many are in the country's northeast corner, pressuring Kabul from that direction as well.
The latest US military intelligence assessment is that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a couple of months.
Fighting meanwhile raged in Lashkar Gah, one of Afghanistan's largest cities in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto that provincial capital.
Taliban seize regional police headquarters
On Wednesday, a suicide car bombing marked the latest wave to target the capital's regional police headquarters.
By Thursday, the Taliban had taken the building, with some police officers surrendering to the militants and others retreating to the nearby governor's office that's still held by government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand.
Niazi said she believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded security force members, but she had no casualty breakdown. Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it, she said. The Taliban's other advances have seen the militants free hundreds of its members over the last week, bolstering their ranks while seizing American-supplied weapons and vehicles.
Niazi criticised ongoing airstrikes targeting the area, saying civilians likely had been wounded and killed.
“The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves, and the government, without paying any attention to civilians, carried out airstrikes,” she said.
With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the US Air Force is believed to be carrying out some series of strikes to support Afghan forces. Aviation tracking data suggested US Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting overnight across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.
It's unclear what casualties the US bombing campaign has caused. The US Air Force's Central Command, based in Qatar, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
US push for negotiations
In Doha, a US envoy has met with diplomats from China, Pakistan and Russia in an effort to warn the Taliban they could again be considered international pariahs if they continue their offensive, the State Department said.
The US envoy also plans to meet with the Afghan government and Taliban officials as the fighting goes on without a sign of it abating.