Mazar-e-Sharif, the fourth-largest city in Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban on Saturday after a multipronged assault launched by insurgents, according to a lawmaker.
Balkh lawmaker Abas Ebrahimzada said the province’s national army corps surrendered first, which prompted the pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of the onslaught.
According to the lawmaker, all of the provincial installations, including the governor’s office, are in Taliban hands.
The insurgents have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in a breakneck offensive less than three weeks before the US is set to withdraw its last troops, raising fears of a full militant takeover or another Afghan civil war.
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. They now control about 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, leaving the Western-backed government with a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as Kabul.
The Taliban also seized a province just south of Afghanistan's capital as it continued its sweeping military gains on Saturday morning.
They have been closing in on Kabul, and on Saturday an official from Logar province, Hoda Ahmadi, said the area just 11 kilometres from the capital had been captured and its provincial officials detained.
The withdrawal of foreign forces and the swift retreat of Afghanistan's own troops — despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years — has raised fears the Taliban could return to power, or the country could descend into civil war.
The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived on Friday to help partially evacuate the US Embassy.
The rest are set to arrive by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its August 31 withdrawal deadline.
The Taliban meanwhile released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, renaming it the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
Taliban advance at alarming pace
The Taliban's advance in Afghanistan continued at an alarming pace on Friday as three key cities in the south were wrested from the control of Afghan government forces.
On Thursday the militant Islamist organisation took over the country's second and third-largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, within 12 hours of each other.
Fighters stormed the citadel and police HQ in Herat, while videos posted online showed gunfire in the streets and militants celebrating in the deserted governor's office. State security forces' vehicles were seen leaving Kandahar on Thursday as the city was overrun.
On Friday, an Afghan official confirmed the Taliban had also captured Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand. The head of the provincial council clarified that three army bases outside the city were still in operation.
The Taliban now controls more than a third of Afghanistan's provincial capitals. The onslaught began after the withdrawal of US troops from the country and progressed with astonishing speed, while intra-Afghan talks aimed at a ceasefire stalled in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Thousands of Afghans in the north have vacated their homes and are living in tents, fearing the return of a brutally repressive regime. On Friday UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the country was "spinning out of control".
"Even as country that has tragically known generations of conflict," Guterres said, "Afghanistan is in the throes of yet another chaotic and desperate chapter, an incredible tragedy for its long-suffering people.
"Continued urban conflict will mean continued carnage, with civilians paying the highest price. I remind all parties... attacks against civilians is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime."
He added: "It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away from them."
Provincial capitals overrun by Islamist militants
The rapid Taliban advance across Afghanistan has seen fighters seize more than 12 major cities in the space of a week, taking over large swathes of the north and west and gradually encircling the capital of Kabul.
Afghan parliamentarians in the southern province of Uruzgan said officials had surrendered its capital, Tirin Kot, where Taliban fighters paraded through the main square in Humvees and pickup trucks.
Qalat, the capital of Zabul province, also fell. Provincial council chief Atta Jan Haqbayan told reporters officials were in a nearby army camp, preparing to leave.
In the west, Feroz Koh, the capital city of Ghor province, was also taken over by insurgents. Taliban forces also captured the southeastern city of Ghazni on Thursday, arresting the governor along with his deputy and chief of staff while armed officers patrolled the streets.
The takeover of Ghazni cuts off a crucial highway link between Kabul and the south. The capital is still under the control of the Western-backed Afghan government but US officials expect Kabul to come under attack within the next 30 days.
Local warlord captured; US presses on with retreat
In Herat, Taliban fighters could be seen rushing part the city's Great Mosque and seizing government buildings. The city had been under attack for two weeks, with one wave deflected by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan, known as the 'Lion of Herat', and his forces.
The Afghan government relies heavily on regional strongmen for defense in some parts of the country. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines.
On Friday the Taliban confirmed it had arrested the 70-year-old Khan along with several of his top aides. A Taliban official was filmed talking to Khan in his home and offering him protection assurance.
The insurgents also circulated films that appeared to show Taliban fighters had taken possession of two Afghan military Black Hawk helicopters - provided by the US - at Herat province's Shindand Airbase.
Elsewhere in Kunduz in the north of the country, militants are understood to have seized a hundred US Humvees and armoured vehicles, as well as several US reconnaissance drones.
The US still plans to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by August 31, ending a 20-year presence in the country that began with the ousting of the Taliban from power in the aftermath of 9/11. But John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said on Thursday that Washington would send 3,000 troops to evacuate personnel from the US embassy in Kabul.
"The first movement will consist of three infantry battalions currently in the Central Command area of responsibility," he said. The first US troops began landing at Kabul Airport on Friday afternoon.
Separately, the UK said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country. News that the Taliban had captured Lashkar Gah in Helmand came as a blow; the majority of the UK's 457 casualties occurred in this province, where the Camp Bastion complex served as its base of operations from 2006 to 2014.
On Friday UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended an emergency Cobra meeting on Afghanistan. He told reporters afterwards that he believed there could be no "military solution".
"I think the UK can be extremely proud of what has been done in Afghanistan over the last 20 years," he said. "Don't forget that the combat mission ended in 2014.
"We've got to be realistic about the abilities of the UK or any power to impose a combat solution in Afghanistan. What we certainly can do is work with all our partners... who share an interest with us in preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a breeding ground for terror."
Hopes for diplomatic solution are slowly fading
Thousands of Afghans have fled to Kabul as their last refuge in recent weeks. Displaced families have packed into tents in makeshift camps around the capital, where the World Food Programme has described food shortages in the capital as "dire".
According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 80 per cent of the 241,000 people who have fled their homes since the end of May were women and children. Between July 1 and August 12, the UN verified 10,350 internally displaced people who had arrived in Kabul.
The Taliban has a brutal record of brutal repression of civilians and human rights violations, especially against women. When the Islamist group was in power in the 1990s girls were barred from attending school and the Taliban meted out medieval punishments like stoning for adultery.
For the past 20 years many Afghans had worked to build up fledgling civil society institutions including charities and NGOs. But since the resurgence began parts of this fragile architecture have been wiped out overnight.
In late June reports surfaced that some women aged between 15 and 40 were being forcibly married to Taliban insurgents in some Taliban-held areas.
Women have also been barred from leaving their homes without a male escort. In Kabul, Afghans who fled the northern Takhar province said girls had been stopped and lashed for wearing “revealing sandals”.
Pashtana Durrani, director of the Kandahar-based nonprofit LEARNAfg, which advocates for girls' education, said on Thursday the principal from the public school she worked with had fled and her students would no longer be able to get to school.
"My staff is stuck in Kandahar," she wrote on Twitter. "My family, relatives, stuck in Kandahar. I am praying nothing happens to the people I hold so dear. The government should be ashamed to have let this happen... I am crying and crying."
Herat-based women's rights activist Zarmina Kakar said she and her five siblings had hidden in the house on Thursday evening as the Taliban swept in the city, planting white flags emblazoned with the Islamic proclamation of faith in a central square.
Speaking to AP on Friday, Kakar, 26, recalled a time when her mother took her out to buy her ice cream in the 1990s under Taliban rule. Her mother was whipped by a Taliban militant for revealing her face for a couple of minutes.
“Today again," she said, "I feel that if Taliban come to power, we will return back to the same dark days."
The Afghan government's state-owned Bakhtar News Agency reported that after Kandahar was taken over on Thursday, Taliban gunmen entered the head offices of Azizi Bank and ordered nine women working there to leave.
Fereshteh Forough, the founder of Afghanistan's first coding and web development school for women, posted screenshots of messages from her students on a shared WhatsApp group.
"We just left our house," one wrote. "My brothers and father are there. The situation is very concerning." Another wrote: "The worst noise in the world is the sound of war."
Watch the full video report in the player above.