The U.S. military has warned that security in Afghanistan is "not going in the right direction" and challenged the country's leadership amid reports that Taliban fighters have captured at least six provincial capitals in the span of a week.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on August 9 expressed serious concern but insisted that Afghan forces were capable of defending the country against the fundamentalist militant group.
"These are their military forces, these are their provincial capitals, their people to defend, and it's really going to come down to the leadership that they're willing to exude here at this particular moment," Kirby said.
Earlier in the day, multiple reports said Taliban fighters had taken another regional capital as national security forces battled militants in three other northern provinces -- Balkh, Takhar, and Kunduz.
Meanwhile, NATO said it was continuing its withdrawal and it urged the Taliban to return to the political process or "never be recognized by the international community."
Taliban militants now "are in full control" of Aybak, the capital of the northern Samangan Province, Deputy Governor Sefatullah Samangani told Radio Azadi on August 9.
Earlier, a Taliban spokesman tweeted that all government and police installations there had been "cleared."
Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary tweeted that Aybak fell to the Taliban "without a fight," according to both Taliban fighters and Aybak residents.
"Taliban fighters inside the city of Aybak, residents in Aybak city tells me," Sarwary tweeted.
But a provincial lawmaker in Samangan, Ziauddin Zia, was quoted as saying that some security forces were still fighting in Aybak and some government installations still had not been captured.
Earlier on August 9, Aybak residents left the city in droves, Ismail Sadat, the manager of a local private radio and TV station, told RFE/RL.
"Hundreds of families have fled their homes and been displaced to Balkh and Baghlan provinces since yesterday," Sadat said. "Aybak city market was closed yesterday and is closed today, too. Residents are worried."
The fall of Aybak 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.
That brought to six the number of provincial capitals under complete or near-total Taliban control after militants on August 6 took Zaranj, the capital of the southwestern Nimroz Province, and the northern Jawzjan Province's capital, Sheberghan.
Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since May 1, when the United States and other countries officially began withdrawing their forces in a pullout that is expected to be completed by the end of this month.
Reuters quoted an unnamed NATO official as saying as reports that more provincial capitals fell on August 9 that the military alliance's "drawdown is ongoing."
"There is no military solution to the conflict, and the Taliban must understand that they will never be recognized by the international community if they reject the political process and try to take the country by force," the NATO official said. "They must cease their attacks and take part in peace talks in good faith."
The foreign minister of neighboring Pakistan, which has been accused by Kabul of supporting the Taliban, cited a "meltdown" of Afghan security forces.
"The capacity-building, the training, the equipment...where is it?" Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said at a news conference, questioning the support and resources piled into Afghanistan by the international community.
"Issues of governance and the meltdown of Afghan national defense forces need to be looked into," he said.
Heavy clashes have been under way close to Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, since late on August 8, officials told RFE/RL, adding that the government's defense lines risked breaking unless reinforcement were sent to the region.
Munir Farhad, the Balkh provincial governor spokesman, told RFE/RL that government forces have been backed by the so-called popular uprising forces made of local inhabitants wary of the return of the Taliban.
"The fighting is raging in the south and southwest of Mazar-e Sharif and strong positions have been established to defend the city of Mazar-e Sharif. The popular uprising forces, national security forces, the Afghan National Army, and the national police forces are united in defending the front lines and the security belts they created about a month ago," he said.
Meanwhile, Afghan commandos launched a counterattack on August 9 to try to beat back Taliban fighters who overran most of Kunduz a day earlier, with residents fleeing the conflict.
Kunduz, a city of some 375,000 inhabitants, would be the most significant to fall since the Taliban launched an all-out offensive in May as U.S.-led forces began the final stages of their withdrawal.
Government forces in Kunduz appeared to be only in control of the airport and their own base, with all key government buildings in the city in the militants' hands.
The main prison in Kunduz was also reportedly under Taliban control.
A Taliban spokesman had warned the United States on August 8 against intervening following U.S. air strikes to support beleaguered Afghan government forces.
Security officials also said heavy fighting was under way on the outskirts of the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border.
Many civilians were caught in the crossfire, with UNICEF, the UN's children's agency, saying on August 9 that at least 27 children had been killed and 136 injured across three provinces of Afghanistan over the past three days amid escalating violence.
"UNICEF is shocked by the rapid escalation of grave violations against children in Afghanistan," UNICEF country representative Herve Ludovic De Lys said in an e-mailed statement. "The atrocities grow higher by the day."
The deaths and injuries were reported in Kandahar, Khost, and Pakria provinces.
In Kunduz, health officials said that 14 bodies, including those of women and children, and more than 30 injured people had been taken to hospital.
In Herat, Arif Jalali, the head of Herat Zonal Hospital said 36 people had been killed and 220 wounded in fighting over the past eleven days.
More than half of the wounded were civilians, he said, and women and children were among the dead.
The Taliban has also taken most of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand Province, where militants took nine of the 10 police districts in the city last week. Heavy fighting there continues, as do U.S. and Afghan government air strikes, one of which damaged a health clinic and a high school.
The U.S. Central Command has said the troops 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.