The Taliban on August 12 took control of parts of Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city, and captured Ghazni, the 10th provincial capital to fall, as the insurgent group’s lightning offensive brings them closer to the capital, Kabul.
The fall of Herat in western Afghanistan would be a devastating blow to the government in Kabul, which now controls a scattered archipelago of contested cities and around only one-third of the countryside.
Videos showed Taliban fighters in central Herat as gunfire echoed through the streets after the group breached the city’s defenses.
A Taliban spokesman said fighters had captured the city, including the provincial building, police headquarters, and other buildings. He said government soldiers were surrendering and military vehicles, weapons, and ammunition had been captured.
The city has been under siege for weeks, aided in defense by government-allied warlord Ismail Khan.
Although Taliban forces are in Herat, the governor's spokesman told RFE/RL that it did not mean the city had fallen.
A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to RFE/RL that the Taliban had seized key facilities in Herat, including the governor's office and police headquarters.
But the source said fighting with the Taliban was still going on in some areas amid reports that Herat's governor and several security officials had retreated to a military base on the outskirts of the city.
Earlier, the Taliban captured Ghazni, the 10th Afghan provincial capital to fall to the militants over the past week, and security forces arrested the province’s governor after he fled the city.
Afghan officials told RFE/RL that Governor Dawod Laghmani was being held in Kabul for investigation. They did not give further details.
Videos posted on social media showed Laghmani’s convoy of vehicles heading to Kabul from Taliban-controlled areas after the fall of Ghazni, in the latest instance of government officials fleeing without resistance.
Ghazni is located 150 kilometers southwest of Kabul and holds strategic importance as it lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway that connects the capital to the south.
The Taliban now controls almost one-third of the country's 34 provincial capitals.
A U.S. defense official cited intelligence as saying this week that Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan's capital in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
Heavy fighting was also reported in the cities of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, and Qala-e Naw, the capital of the northwestern province of Badghis.
In Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand Province, the Taliban on August 12 captured a police headquarters as fighting raged in the city of 200,000 -- one of Afghanistan's largest.
Fighting has also been intense in the southern city of Kandahar, once the stronghold of the militant group.
The Taliban said it overran the heavily fortified jail in Kandahar and released "hundreds of prisoners.”
The Taliban frequently targets prisons to release fighters that rejoin its ranks.
The fall of Kandahar would be a huge tactical success for the militants and a serious blow to the morale of government troops.
On August 11, the Taliban captured Kunduz airport when most government forces there surrendered, making it more difficult to reinforce government soldiers.
President Ashraf Ghani, who is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country's special forces, the militias of allied warlords, and U.S. airpower, fired the army chief of staff on August 11
Ghani also and traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province and a key regional hub, to rally local defenses in the north.
The Taliban offensive has gained momentum across Afghanistan since early May, when the United States and its allies officially began a pullout slated for completion by the end of this month.
Meanwhile, a third and final day of talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government was under way on August 12 in Qatar.
Envoys from the United States, China, Russia, and Pakistan met in Doha with Taliban and Afghan government negotiators in a bid reinvigorate stalled negotiations to find a political solution to the conflict.
The Afghan delegation sent to Doha, led by Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the government's reconciliation council, has demanded the Taliban immediately end attacks on cities and begin a dialogue to find a political solution, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar told RFE/RL.
"The people of Afghanistan, the region, and the world have consensus that the issue of Afghanistan should be resolved not through war but through peace negotiations and reaching a peace agreement,” Atmar said. “Now if the Taliban don’t accept this and don’t act faithfully and honestly in this regard, they stand against the global consensus, not just against the will of the Afghan people.”
Abdullah said the day before that the Taliban had not taken peace talks seriously in recent months and that no progress had been made.
The United States and European powers also warned the Taliban that it will become isolated if it attempts to seize power by force.
"Attempts to monopolize power through violence, fear, and war will only lead to international isolation," the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy, Ross Wilson, said on Twitter.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would not provide financial support to Afghanistan if the Taliban takes over and introduces Shari'a religious law.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.