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Taliban Strengthens Grip Over Afghanistan With Capture Of Major Cities


Taliban militants gather after taking control of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand on August 13.

The Taliban has captured three major Afghan cities and a string of provincial capitals in a sweeping offensive that threatens the capital, Kabul.

In the past 24 hours, Taliban fighters have seized Herat and Kandahar -- the country's third- and second-largest cities, respectively -- as well as Lashkar Gah, the capital of southwestern Helmand Province.

The insurgents on August 13 also took control of the capitals of Zabul and Uruzgan provinces in the south, while in the west the provincial capital of Ghor also fell.

The Taliban overran the city of Pul-e Alam, the capital of the central province of Logar, about 80 kilometers away from Kabul, just a day after taking control of nearby Ghazni. Both cities hold strategic value for their roads heading south from Kabul.

The capture of Kandahar and Herat represent the Taliban's most significant victories since the broad offensive started in May as U.S.-led foreign forces began withdrawing. In Herat, the Taliban were able to capture veteran militia leader Mohammad Ismail Khan, who had been leading fighters against the insurgents in recent weeks. He was transferred to his home.

Radio Azadi reported that locals had found the bodies of four people who had been shot dead with their hands bound in the Bala Karz area near Kandahar. It was not immediately clear who the victims were or why they were killed.

Earlier, human rights groups accused the Taliban of carrying out revenge killings after capturing Kandahar's Spin Boldak district.

The Taliban now holds half of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals and two-thirds of the countryside, leaving the Kabul government in control of the capital and a scattered archipelago of vulnerable cities as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw in the next month.

The government still holds the main city in the north -- Mazar-e-Sharif -- and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, as well as Kabul.

In many cases, cities have fallen to the Taliban with little to no resistance in an eight-day blitz as overextended and demoralized government troops either retreat or surrender.

In Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah, the Taliban had laid siege for weeks before the cities fell.

As population centers fall to the Taliban like dominoes, the fate of Kabul is now in focus. The latest U.S. military intelligence assesses that Taliban fighters could isolate the capital in 30 days and possibly take it within 90.

With the security situation rapidly deteriorating, the United States and Britain said they would deploy thousands of troops to evacuate their citizens and most embassy staff from the capital.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Kabul was "not right now in an imminent-threat environment," while acknowledging that Taliban fighters were "trying to isolate Kabul."

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace warned on August 13 that Afghanistan was on the brink of becoming a failed state, which could invite the return of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

In a radio interview, Wallace said the international withdrawal from Afghanistan “was a mistake to have done it that way,” adding that “we’ll, as an international community, probably pay the consequences of that.”

Wallace added that the West "could be back" in Afghanistan if the Taliban "start hosting Al-Qaeda."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed his country's support for an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan, adding that "regrettably, the Taliban decided to attempt to settle the situation through military force."

In response to the Taliban's swift advances, the U.S. military said it would send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. Embassy staff.

Britain said it would deploy around 600 troops to help its citizens leave, while other embassies and aid groups said they also were getting their people out.

NATO ambassadors also met to discuss the security situation and to coordinate national measures to reduce embassy staff in Kabul, as several European countries announced that they were either closing their embassy or dramatically reducing staff.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after the talks that the "allies are deeply concerned about the high levels of violence caused by the Taliban's offensive, including attacks on civilians, targeted killings, and reports of other serious human rights abuses."

Meanwhile, Afghan officials were meeting in the presidential palace in Kabul on August 13 to discuss the security situation.

The fast-paced evolution on the battlefield comes as world powers gathered in the Qatari capital on August 12 called for an end to the fighting and 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 from 13 countries 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.

But the threat of international isolation didn't appear to deter the Taliban from forging facts on the ground.

In a statement, the Taliban said its swift successes on the battlefield were a "sign of the popularity and acceptance of the Islamic Emirate among the nation" because such "great and rapid progress is not possible by force."

They also assured citizens that their lives and property would be protected, urging businesses, health-care workers, and others providing services to continue work. Fighters were ordered to protect government buildings and infrastructure.

An amnesty to "all those who have worked and cooperated with the occupiers" and Kabul administration was also offered if they "embrace the Islamic Emirate," including military personnel.

The UN Security Council is discussing a draft statement that would condemn the Taliban attacks, threaten sanctions, and affirm the nonrecognition of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, diplomats said, according to Reuters.

This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and AP
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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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