Taliban fighters have taken control of Mazar-e Sharif, a major northern Afghan city that was one of the last in the country still under government control.
The capture of the city, some 100 kilometers from the border with Uzbekistan, came on August 14 just hours after President Ashraf Ghani vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the last 20 years, and after Taliban forces seized yet more provincial capitals.
The offensive, which has spanned several weeks, has stunned U.S. officials who had hoped Afghan forces would hold their own. It has forced U.S. President Joe Biden's administration to speed up plans to evacuate civilians ahead of the deadline of August 31 for withdrawing all U.S. military forces.
Biden, who has come under increasing criticism in Washington, defended the rapid U.S. pullout in a statement released by the White House.
"Over our country's 20 years at war in Afghanistan, America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in U.S. history," he said.
"One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country's civil conflict was not acceptable to me," he said.
Biden also authorized an additional 1,000 U.S. troops for deployment to Afghanistan, raising the number being deployed to roughly 5,000. Biden said the additional troops were needed to "make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown" of U.S. and allied personnel.
Biden didn't provide details about the additional 1,000 troops except that the decision to deploy them had been "based on the recommendations of our diplomatic, military, and intelligence teams."
Earlier on August 14, in a brief televised address, Ghani said he was consulting with local leaders and international partners on the situation in the country. He did not announce his resignation, something that some observers had speculated was possible.
"As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence and displacement of my people," Ghani said. He also said the "remobilization of armed forces is a top priority."
Given the rapid advance by the Taliban, and the paltry resistance being put up by government forces, it's unclear how long it will be before the capital, Kabul, is also captured.
A Radio Azadi reporter in Mazar-e Sharif said that Taliban fighters entered the city's police headquarters and briefly skirmished with security forces in a central square. Taliban fighters then moved to the city's central jail and released hundreds of prisoners.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious former warlord who commands thousands of fighters in the region, was seen fleeing north, with a convoy of vehicles and weaponry, toward the Uzbek border city of Termez.
Video obtained by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service showed a large number of vehicles reportedly linked to Dostum's militia trying to cross the Khayraton bridge over the Amu Darya river later August 14. The river runs along the border between the two countries.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from the Balkh province where Mazar-e Sharif is located, told the Associated Press that the national army surrendered first in Mazar-e Sharif. That prompted pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of the Taliban onslaught, he said.
Afzal Hadid, head of the Balkh provincial council, said that security forces were escaping toward the border.
"The Taliban have taken control of Mazar-e Sharif," he told Reuters. "All security forces have left Mazar city."
Ebrahimzada also said that Dostum as well as another warlord, Ata Mohammad Noor, had fled the province and their whereabouts were unknown.
Ghani flew to Mazar-e Sharif -- a city of around 500,000 people -- earlier this week to rally the city's defenses, meeting with several militia commanders, including Dostum and Noor, who command thousands of fighters.
Earlier on August 14, Taliban fighters overran Sharana, capital of southeastern Paktika Province, and later captured Asadabad, the capital of eastern Kunar Province as well.
The new seizures bring the number of provinces now controlled by the Taliban to 24, out of a total of 34.
The Taliban meanwhile released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, renaming it the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
In the video, an unnamed insurgent said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis, and recitations of the Koran, the Islamic holy book. It appears the station will no longer play music.
The Biden administration has rushed to try and bolster Afghan government forces, while also providing defense for American civilians at the embassy and elsewhere.
The first U.S. Marines from a contingent of 3,000 began arriving in Kabul on August 13 to help in the evacuation, and to secure the city’s airport. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that most of the 3,000 additional troops will be in place by August 15 and "will be able to move thousands per day" out.
Kirby acknowledged on August 13 that it appeared Taliban fighters were trying to isolate the city, but said the capital was not "in an imminent threat environment."
The Taliban's rapid offensive has picked up pace as U.S.-led international troops aim to complete their withdrawal by August 31. The deadline was set after Biden announced in April that he was ending U.S. involvement in the war after nearly 20 years.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on August 13 expressed concern about the situation and urged the Taliban to halt their offensive and “negotiate in good faith.”
"The message from the international community to those on the warpath must be clear: seizing power through military force is a losing proposition. That can only lead to prolonged civil war or to the complete isolation of Afghanistan," Guterres said.
Guterres also said he was "deeply disturbed" by accounts of poor treatment of women in areas seized by the Taliban.
"It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away," Guterres said.