The United States scrambled to press for an Afghan peace deal and the European Union debated greater help in the region to handle refugee flows on August 10 as Taliban fighters continued to overrun at least two new population centers in the war-ravaged country.
The moves came ahead of news that the militant group had captured the eighth provincial hub in the span of a week when they took the northern city of Pol-e Khomri, the capital of Baghlan Province.
Earlier, an RFE/RL correspondent on the ground said strategic buildings, including the governor's office in Farah City, the capital of the southwestern Farah Province, had also fallen to the Taliban.
Farther north, the dpa news agency quoted local officials as saying security has also worsened around Afghanistan's fourth-largest city, Mazar-e Sharif, with a population of around half a million people.
In the capital, Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on regional Afghan warlords to support his embattled government and appealed to civilians to defend the country's "democratic fabric," aides said on August 10.
Taliban gains in recent weeks have been accompanied by widespread reports of revenge killings and other attacks on civilians.
U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is in Qatar for talks with the Taliban in a push to get the group to stop its sweeping offensive.
In the Qatari capital, Doha, where the militant group has a political office, Khalilzad will "press the Taliban to stop their military offensive and to negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan," the State Department said on August 9.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeated Washington's position on August 10 that Afghan defense forces are sufficiently trained and equipped to fight back against the Taliban.
Psaki was speaking after international news agencies quoted a "senior EU official" as saying Taliban fighters now control 65 percent of Afghanistan, are poised to capture 11 provincial hubs, and are seeking to cut off Kabul's traditional support from forces in the north of the country.
The Taliban has been on the offensive across Afghanistan since May 1, when the United States and its allies officially began withdrawing their forces in a pullout that is expected to be completed by the end of this month.
The European Union said on August 10 that it was considering more support for countries neighboring Afghanistan while a handful of EU member states insisted on continuing forced deportations amid fears of an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Afghans as Taliban fighters advance.
The interior ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, and the Netherlands -- in a letter dated August 5 and disclosed only later -- reportedly urged the EU’s executive arm to "intensify talks" with the Afghan government after Kabul said it was suspending "nonvoluntary returns" of Afghans fleeing the violence for three months.
They reportedly fear a repeat of the migrant crisis that engulfed Europe in 2015 when well over a million migrants, including many from war-torn Syria, arrived in the European Union and sparked lasting political divisions in the bloc.
"We would like to highlight the urgent need to perform returns, both voluntary and nonvoluntary, to Afghanistan," the ministers wrote to the European Commission, which confirmed receipt of the letter. "Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU."
A senior EU official was quoted as saying "the first priority" was support "to those countries that are the most affected."
The United Nations has said that there have so far been no "large-scale displacements" across Afghanistan's borders.
But an EU official was quoted as saying the UN estimated that 500,000 Afghans could be pushed toward neighboring Pakistan, Iran, or Tajikistan if the situation continues to deteriorate.
The head of the International Organization for Migration, Antonio Vitorino, said in a statement on August 10 that he was "extremely concerned by the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan -- particularly the impact on mobile and displaced populations, including returnees."
He cited deadly escalations in Helmand, Kandahar, Herat, Kunduz, and Nimroz provinces, "adding untold suffering in a country where over 5 million people are already displaced internally."
Gulam Bahauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, told Reuters that fighting was going on in 25 of the 34 provinces and 60,000 families had been displaced over the past two months, with most seeking refuge in the Afghan capital.
A security source and provincial councilor in northern Baghlan Province told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity that government forces had retreated and Taliban fighters entered Pol-e Khomri at around 7:30 p.m. local time on August 10.
The sources said sporadic fighting was continuing in some areas of the city.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said on his Twitter account that the city had been "fully seized" by the militants.
Taliban militants were also consolidating their grip on the local levers of power in Aybak, the capital of the northern Samangan Province overrun by the group, residents said, as national security forces battled militants in three other northern provinces -- Balkh, Takhar, and Kunduz.
The fall of Aybak on August 9 came a day after militants overran three provincial capitals, including most of the strategic northeastern city of Kunduz, the provincial capital of Sar-e Pol and Taloqan, the capital of northeastern Takhar Province.
Militants on August 6 took Zaranj, the capital of the southwestern Nimroz Province, and the northern Jawzjan Province's capital, Sheberghan.
Heavy clashes were also reported close to Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, officials told RFE/RL, while Afghan commandos launched a counterattack on August 9 to try to beat back Taliban fighters who had overrun most of Kunduz.
If the Taliban cements its control of Kunduz, a city of some 375,000 inhabitants, it would be the most significant urban center to fall to the militants since May.
In Balkh, militants appear to be in a position to advance from different directions on Mazar-e Sharif, the biggest city in the region, whose fall would deal a devastating blow to the Kabul government.
Atta Mohammad Noor, a northern militia commander, vowed to fight the Taliban to the end, saying there would be "resistance until the last drop of my blood."
Security officials also reported fighting on the outskirts of the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border.
As fighting raged, tens of thousands of people were on the move inside the country, with families fleeing newly captured Taliban cities with tales of brutal treatment at the hands of the militants, despite an order on August 10 from the group's military commander to his fighters not to harm Afghan forces and government officials in territories they conquer.
In a nearly five-minute audio, Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of late Taliban leader Mullah Omar, told militants to stay out of abandoned homes of government and security officials who have fled, leave marketplaces open and protect places of business, including banks.
There have been reports by civilians who have fled Taliban advances of heavy-handed treatment by the insurgents -- schools being burned down and repressive restrictions on women.
The Afghanistan representative for UNICEF, the UN's children's agency, said on August 9 that it was "shocked by the rapid escalation of grave violations against children in Afghanistan," adding, "The atrocities grow higher by the day."
The Taliban has also taken most of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand Province, where heavy fighting including air strikes by the U.S. and Afghan forces continues.
Khalilzad, the architect of the peace deal that the previous U.S. administration of President Donald Trump brokered with the Taliban in February 2020, was expected to hold talks with key players and seek a commitment from Afghanistan’s neighbors and the region not to recognize a Taliban government that comes to power by force.
Senior Afghan officials may also travel to Doha in the coming days, including Abdullah Abdullah, who heads the government's reconciliation council.
Kabul and several western governments say Pakistan's support for the Taliban allowed the group to resurface after being pushed from power by the U.S. invasion in 2001.
#SanctionPakistan is among the top trending hashtags on Twitter as tens of thousands of Afghans demand an end to the Taliban offensive which they labeled as “Pakistan’s proxy war in Afghanistan.”
Afghans have also been taking to the streets in European, Canadian, and U.S. cities to protest against Taliban's human rights violations and seek an end to regional support for the militant group.
Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban.
The U.S. Central Command has said the troop withdrawal is more than 95 percent complete and will be finished by August 31, ahead of the September 11 anniversary of two decades since the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States that prompted the invasion of Afghanistan.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.