The Taliban seized much of Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city, and captured two other provincial capitals on August 12 as the insurgent group’s lightning offensive brought them closer to the capital, Kabul.
The fall of Herat in western Afghanistan is a devastating blow to the government in Kabul, which now controls a scattered constellation of contested cities and around only one-third of the countryside.
Within the past week, the Taliban has captured 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. U.S. defense officials say that Taliban fighters could isolate Afghanistan's capital in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
The fast-paced evolution on the battlefield comes as world powers gathered in the Qatari capital called for an end to fighting and for accelerated peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban, which have been engaged in months of on-again, off-again negotiations in Doha.
In a joint statement issued after talks with Taliban and Afghan government negotiators, envoys from the United States, China, Russia, Europe, and Afghanistan’s neighbors said they would not recognize any government "imposed through the use of military force.” They also warned that any reconstruction assistance would be contingent on a political settlement.
"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,” Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. “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.”
But the threat of international isolation didn’t appear to deter the Taliban from forging ahead on the ground as government forces crumble along every front.
Taliban fighters entered central Herat, 150 kilometers from Iran, and Qala-e Naw, the capital of the northwestern province of Badghis, near the border with Turkmenistan.
Earlier in the day, the insurgent group captured Ghazni, a provincial capital located 150 kilometers southwest of Kabul that lies on a highway that connects the capital to the south.
After weeks of fighting, the Taliban claimed late on August 12 to have captured Kandahar in the south, while still contesting Lashkar Gah.
In Herat, a Taliban spokesman said fighters had gained control of 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.
Local security and provincial officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to RFE/RL that the Taliban had seized key facilities, including the governor's office, police headquarters, and prison.
There was scattered fighting amid reports Herat's governor and several security officials had retreated to a military base on the outskirts of the city.
Heavy fighting was also reported in the cities of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.
In Lashkar Gah, the capital of the 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 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 fall of Kandahar would be a huge tactical success for the militants and another serious blow to the morale of the government troops.
In another victory, the Taliban captured the airport in the northern city of Kunduz on August 11 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.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.