KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s third-largest city and a strategic provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, further squeezing the country’s embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.
The seizure of Herat marks the biggest prize yet for the Taliban, which has taken 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a weeklong blitz. Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city — which dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great — and seized government buildings. Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents’ control.
The capture of Ghazni, meanwhile, cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after U.S. and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government.
While Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who are estimated to now hold over two-thirds of the nation, while they continue to pressure government forces in several other provincial capitals.
Thousands of people have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public amputations, stonings and executions. Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats met throughout the day.
The latest U.S. military intelligence assessment suggests 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 few months. The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban keeps up its momentum.
The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces and renews questions about where the over $830 billion spent by the U.S. Defense Department on fighting, training those troops, and reconstruction efforts went — especially as Taliban fighters ride on American-made Humvees and pickup trucks with M-16s slung across their shoulders.
Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists over the days of fighting, instead issuing video communiques that downplay the Taliban advance.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines and later said they were in control.
Afghan lawmaker Semin Barekzai also acknowledged the city’s fall, saying that some officials there had escaped. Witnesses described seeing once-detained Taliban fighters at Herat’s prison now freely moving on the streets.
It wasn’t immediately clear what happened to Khan, who earlier had been described as under attack with his forces at a government building.
Earlier Thursday, the militants raised their white flags imprinted with an Islamic proclamation of faith over the city of Ghazni, just 80 miles southwest of Kabul.
Militants crowded onto one seized Humvee and drove down a main road, with the golden dome of a mosque near the governor’s office visible behind them, yelling: “God is great!” The insurgents, cradling their rifles, later gathered at one roundabout for an impromptu speech by a commander. One militant carried a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani alleged that the provincial governor and police chief made a deal with the Taliban to flee after surrendering. Taliban video and photos purported to show the governor’s convoy freely passing by insurgents as part of the deal.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai later said the governor and his deputies had been arrested over that alleged deal. The officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Stanekzai also acknowledged in a video message that parts of Ghanzi had fallen, though he insisted government security forces “do exist” in the city.
The loss of Ghazni — which sits along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway — could complicate resupply and movement for government forces, as well as squeeze the capital from the south.
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.
In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland, heavy fighting continued in Lashkar Gah, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto the capital of Helmand province.
On Wednesday, a suicide car bombing marked the latest wave of violence 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.
In neighboring Kandahar, the Taliban attacked a prison in the capital city and freed inmates inside Wednesday night, officials said. On Thursday, Kandahar provincial governor spokesman Bahir Ahmadi acknowledged that the Taliban had entered the capital, also called Kandahar, but said Afghan forces were fighting to push them back.
Niazi criticized 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 U.S. Air Force is believed to be carrying out strikes. Aviation tracking data suggested U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Nicole Ferrara, a Central Command spokeswoman, acknowledged that American forces “have conducted several airstrikes in defense of our Afghan partners in recent days.” However, she declined to offer any details on the attacks or to discuss the Afghan complaints of civilian casualties.
Even as diplomats met in Doha, Qatar on Thursday, the success of the Taliban offensive called into question whether they would ever rejoin long-stalled peace talks aimed at moving Afghanistan toward an administration that includes members of the current Afghan government and the Taliban. Instead, the Taliban could come to power by force — or the country could splinter into factional fighting like it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
The government’s High Council for National Reconciliation called for peace talks to resume, saying it had submitted a plan to Qatar, without elaborating.