afghanistan kandahar frontline taliban threat ward dnt tsr vpx_00002720
This is what the front line of Taliban's advance looks like
06:11 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Taliban have seized the city of Taloquan in northeastern Afghanistan, marking the fifth provincial capital to fall under their control in just a matter of days, a local journalist confirmed to CNN on Monday.

Taloquan, the capital of Takhar Province, is just the latest in a string of victories that come as foreign forces, led by the United States, complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The speed of the militants’ gains, which include the major city of Kunduz, has compounded concerns about the civilian toll. At least 27 children have been killed and 136 injured over the past 72 hours in Afghanistan, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) said in a statement Monday. UNICEF said the bulk of the casualties were in Kandahar province, where fierce fighting between Taliban forces and the Afghan army continues.

“These atrocities are evidence of the brutal nature and scale of violence in Afghanistan which preys on already vulnerable children,” UNICEF said, adding that there are reports that children are “increasingly, being recruited into the conflict by armed groups.”

Five provincial capitals seized

On Friday, the first provincial capital, Zaranj, near the Iranian border, fell to the Taliban. The next, Sherberghan, near the Turkmenistan border, fell on Saturday.

The insurgents then seized Kunduz, a strategically important provincial capital in northern Afghanistan, on Sunday – making it the first major city to fall to the Taliban since it began its offensive in May. With a population of 375,000, Kunduz is a significant military prize.

Afghans inspect damaged shops after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan, Sunday, August 8, 2021.

Also on Sunday, Taliban forces mostly overran the provincial capital city of Sar-e-Pul in the country’s north.

In the past week, the US has increased airstrikes against Taliban positions in a bid to halt their advances. The Taliban has accused the US of bombing a hospital and a high school, along with other civilian targets in Helmand Province. CNN could not independently verify their claims.

“US forces have conducted several airstrikes in defense of our Afghan partners in recent days,” Maj. Nicole Ferrara, a US Central Command spokesperson, told CNN on Sunday, sidestepping a question about the targets of the strikes.

A senior Afghan security official said that although things were changing rapidly on the battlefield, US air support of Afghanistan’s military forces was still scheduled to stop at the end of this month, when the US withdrawal is complete. The official said that there had been no change in US policy despite the fast Taliban advance on the ground.

“We need close air support,” the Afghan official told CNN over the weekend. “Things are getting nasty.”

US CentCom commander Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie publicly stated in July that the US will stop its air support to Afghan forces – and likely undertake only limited counter-terrorism strikes – once the withdrawal is over. All foreign forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by August 31.

On Sunday evening, Muhammad Naeem Wardak, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political bureau, warned the US against further intervention in Afghanistan.

There is no ceasefire agreement with the Afghan government on the horizon as the Taliban continues its military gains, he told news network Al Jazeera Arabic. He also blamed the Afghan government for starting the recent fighting.

“The Afghani government is the one who chose to start the war in different provinces,” Wardak said. “The measures that (the) Taliban took were in response and reaction to the government attacks and actions.”

The US Embassy in Kabul has criticized the Taliban’s offensive on Afghan cities, saying on Sunday its actions to “forcibly impose its rule are unacceptable and contradict its claim to support a negotiated settlement in the Doha peace process.”

“They demonstrate wanton disregard for the welfare and rights of civilians and will worsen this country’s humanitarian crisis,” said the embassy.

Last week, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar said that the recent Taliban offensive had killed more than 3,000 people nationwide and displaced more than 300,000 in the last few months.

Some 5,183 casualties were recorded in the first six months of the year – a 47% increase from 2020 – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a July report. The report noted that deaths and injuries spiked markedly from May, when the US and its allies began withdrawing troops.

CNN’s Kara Fox, Nina Avramova and Hannah Ritchie contributed to this report.