Twelve provincial Afghanistan capitals are now under Taliban control after the militant group captured strategic cities on Thursday, leaving the Afghan capital of Kabul increasingly beleaguered and cut off from the rest of the country.
The city of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city and a major urban center in western Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban on Thursday evening local time, with the group taking control of the governor’s office and Herat police headquarters, according to Afghan officials.
Qala-I-Naw city, the provincial capital of the northwest Badghis province also fell to the militant group on Thursday evening, a Badghis provincial council member confirmed to CNN on Thursday. Afghan forces in the area have fled to the local army base, the only nearby location that has not fallen to the Taliban yet, the council member told CNN.
Earlier in the day, the city of Ghazni, a key provincial capital on the road to Kabul, also fell to the militant group after “long and intense fighting,” according to Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, head of Ghazni provincial council.
A Taliban spokesman tweeted Thursday that the city had been seized, including the governor’s office, police headquarters and prison. CNN cannot independently verify the Taliban’s claims.
Afghan security forces arrested Dawood Laghmani, the governor of Ghazni province, hours after the Taliban took the city, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry told journalists.
Laghmani was detained, along with his deputy and chief of staff, in Maidan Wardak, the province that lies between Kabul and Ghazni, the spokesman added.
The governor had surrendered to the Taliban, Faqiri, the provincial council head, confirmed to CNN.
Ghazni lies around 93 miles (150 kilometers) south of Kabul, on a major highway connecting the capital with Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city.
More than a third of the country’s 34 provinces have now fallen to the Taliban.
Kandahar, which lies in the south of the country, has been besieged by the Taliban for weeks, and the group’s spokesperson claimed on Wednesday that they had taken control of its prison. The Taliban claimed they had freed 1,000 inmates and distributed a video apparently showing them walking outside the jail.
Gul Ahmad Kamin, a Kandahari member of parliament, told CNN Taliban fighters have been able to break through the frontline into Kandahar and were engaging in sporadic confrontation with government forces inside the city.
Kamin also confirmed that a wedding hall in Kandahar which was the frontline position for Afghan forces is now under the Taliban control. The wedding hall, visited by CNN just days ago, is about 600 meters away from the prison.
With the capture of Ghazni, the Taliban is now in control of key locations both to the north and south of Kabul. Their earlier capture of areas of the Baghlan province, which lies to the north of Kabul, raised alarms among US officials because the location is considered essential for the defense of the capital, according to a Biden administration official.
A senior administration official familiar with one US intelligence assessment said Kabul could be isolated by the Taliban in the next 30 to 60 days, increasing the potential that the Afghan capital could fall under the control of the militant group.
Another assessment puts the potential collapse within 90 days, according to another US official. Other officials have warned that there are multiple assessments with differing timelines.
The US is considering relocating its embassy to the Kabul airport amid the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, a US official, Western diplomatic source and another source familiar with the situation told CNN. The US is also expected to draw down some personnel from its diplomatic outpost in the Afghan capital, the US and Western source said.
The US official said options are being weighed in real time, but cautioned that the situation remains fluid. They indicated that decisions are likely to evolve in the days and weeks ahead given the rapidly changing situation on the ground.
Earlier Thursday, the US embassy in Kabul urged US citizens again to depart Afghanistan immediately. About 3,000 US troops will go into Afghanistan to assist with any departure of US diplomats and any possible evacuations, a US defense official told CNN on Thursday.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price also said on Thursday that the US military will assist with getting US diplomats out of Afghanistan as the embassy reduces the number of personnel it has on the ground. Price stressed that the embassy “remains open in its current location” and continues its diplomatic work, however he would not say if it will remain in that location.
‘No future’ for Afghan girls
As the militants sweep across Afghanistan, concerns are growing for the toll on the country’s civilians, particularly women and girls.
Wazhma Frogh, the founder of Women and Peace Studies Organization and a member of Afghanistan High Peace Council, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Wednesday that more than 60,000 families who have fled the violence elsewhere in Afghanistan are now living on the streets of Kabul.
“These are families with small children, 2-year, 3-year, 4-year old who are sleeping on the streets … these are families who are farmers, this is the time of harvest in Afghanistan. They have lost all that,” she said.
The United Nations has warned that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. Nearly 390,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of 2021 due to conflict across the country, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said during a daily briefing on Wednesday.
UN humanitarian agencies said there has been a huge spike in people leaving their homes since May and that 5,800 people fled to Kabul between July 1 and August 5.
The UN said that they have received food, water, household items and sanitation support, and that while most of them are hosted by friends and family, a growing number of people are staying in the open.
“The stories that we hear from these people who are right now on the streets of Kabul, we hear that the Afghan government has given them space to come to the mosques, inside the mosques at least, because [of] this hot weather,” Frogh added.
She said the situation is particularly worrying for women and girls, adding that one woman she spoke to in the north of the country described how women were being forcibly taken away from their communities amid the fighting.
“Tons of Afghan girls right now, they have no future, just thinking about no school or even survival right now,” she said.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Thursday that the Secretary-General is “deeply concerned” with the developments in Afghanistan, including the latest fighting in Herat and Kandahar.
“We are particularly concerned about the shift of fighting to urban areas, where the potential for civilian harm is even greater,” Dujarric said, adding that the organization “hopes” that discussions between Afghan officials, the Taliban and regional and international envoys in Doha this week “will restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited the besieged northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday, attempting to rally local commandos who have been engaged in fighting with the Taliban for days. Many of the regional capitals in the provinces surrounding Mazar-e-Sharif have already fallen to the militants and if Mazar is also seized, it will mark the total collapse of the government’s control in the north of the country.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have made further attacks in other provinces around the country.
Government forces in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the Helmand province, have retreated from the city’s police headquarters after it was attacked with a massive car bomb on Wednesday, senior police official Nasrullah Alizai told CNN on Thursday.
Alizai told local journalists that the building was severely damaged and a 100-meter stretch of the compound’s wall was destroyed. He said security forces planned to retake the compound soon.
According to Alizai, the Taliban also carried out three more car bomb attacks targeting the city’s prison but had failed to take it over.
While other provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban with relatively little fighting, the Afghan Defense Ministry reinforced troops defending Lashkar Gah – sending in hundreds of commandos.
However, they’ve not been able to dislodge the Taliban, who control large parts of the city and most of the surrounding province of Helmand, the miltants’ historical heartland.
As the situation in the country worsens, the Afghan government has replaced its army chief of staff, after less than three months in the job.
Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai has been replaced with Gen. Hibatullah Alizia, a spokesman for the Afghan defense ministry confirmed Wednesday.
Alizia previously served as the commander of the Afghan army’s special operations corps, a group of elite troops that work alongside the air force and have played a crucial role trying to contain the Taliban’s nationwide offensive.
Ahmadzai had only been in the post since June.
CNN’s Becky Anderson, Hamdi Alkhshali, Masoud Popalzai, Richard Roth, Jaide Garcia, Kylie Atwood, Vasco Cotovio, Jennifer Hansler amd Kara Fox contributed reporting.