A lightning offensive by the Taliban in Afghanistan seized control of three major cities on Friday — including Kandahar, the nation’s second-largest city, authorities and officials said.
In addition to Kandahar, militant fighters also took control Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and Herat, the nation’s third-largest city.
Rebels also seized Feroz Koh, the provincial capital of Ghor, giving the Taliban greater momentum toward tackling Kabul just two weeks before the official end date of the U.S. military withdrawal.
Taliban officials said the group seized “hundreds of weapons, vehicles and ammunition” and took over government offices, police headquarters, prisons and other operational centers in Kandahar.
“Many [government] soldiers surrendered and the rest fled,” Afghan Parliament member Gul Ahmad Kamin told CNN.
Kamin said he reached a military base near Kandahar and was waiting for a flight out of the city.
Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Herat, also fell to the Taliban Friday after insurgents took control of the key government facilities.
Herat police chief and Gov. Mohammad Ismail Khan, along with the deputy security minister and other military commanders all surrendered to the Taliban, Tolo News reported.
The sweeping takedowns on Friday follow other areas of Afghanistan that have fallen to the militant group in quick succession over the past week. The Taliban have now captured about a dozen provincial capitals and U.S. officials fear the fall of Kabul may be inevitable.
On Thursday, the Pentagon vowed to send 3,000 U.S. troops to Kabul to help evacuate workers at the American Embassy and the British government sent hundreds to support its diplomatic staff.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also warned all Americans in Afghanistan to leave immediately to escape the rapidly advancing Taliban.
The United States’ top Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been in talks with the Taliban seeking an assurance that the group will not attack the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, The New York Times reported.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States will continue a “core diplomatic presence” in Kabul, but noted that some of the 1,400 embassy staff will immediately leave Afghanistan.
The Taliban, which has largely been on the run in Afghanistan since U.S. forces arrived in late 2001, has moved recently to recapture territory and influence in the war-torn country after American troops began to leave.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said the withdrawal will be complete by Aug. 31, although the Pentagon has said recently that the pullout is more than 90% complete.
Some experts and officials have said Kabul could fall to the Taliban in a matter of weeks, and others fear a collapse of the Afghan government might lead to a resurgence for al Qaida, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States formerly headed by Osama bin Laden.