The US and UK yesterday ordered the deployment of thousands of troops to Afghanistan to evacuate their nationals, as the Taliban overran more key regional cities in an offensive that has left the capital, Kabul, dangerously exposed.
The orders came as the Taliban took control of Kandahar, the nation’s second-biggest city in the insurgency’s heartland, leaving only Kabul and pockets of other territory in government hands.
The fighters were also closer to taking Logar Province, at the gates of Kabul, with a Taliban spokesman saying that insurgents had captured the police headquarters and city jail in the provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam.
Earlier yesterday, officials and residents in Kandahar told reporters that Afghan government forces had withdrawn to a military facility outside the southern city.
“Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square,” a Taliban spokesman wrote on Twitter, referring to a city landmark.
Hours later, the Taliban said it had also taken control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand Province.
A security source confirmed the fall of the city, telling reporters that the Afghan military and government officials had evacuated Lashkar Gah after striking a local ceasefire deal with the militants.
The government has effectively lost control of most of the country, following the Taliban’s eight-day assault of urban centers, which also stunned Kabul’s backers in Washington.
The first wave of the offensive was launched in early May after the US and its allies all but withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, with US President Joe Biden determined to end two decades of war by Sept. 11.
Biden has insisted that he has no regrets with his decision, but the speed and ease of the Taliban’s urban victories in the past few weeks was a surprise and forced new calculations.
Washington and London late on Thursday announced plans to quickly pull out their embassy staff and other citizens from the capital.
“We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price told reporters, adding that the embassy would remain open.
“This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal,” he said.
The Pentagon said that 3,000 US troops would be deployed to Kabul within the next 24 to 48 hours, underscoring that they would not be used to launch attacks against the Taliban.
The conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when US-led forces began the final stage of their troop withdrawal.
After months of taking what were considered less strategically important rural areas, the Taliban zeroed in on cities.
In the past week, the insurgents have taken over a dozen provincial capitals and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is one of the few remaining holdouts.
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