Taliban take Mazar-i-Sharif, set sights on Kabul

Taliban

Taliban fighters pose as they stand guard along the roadside in Herat on August 14, 2021. The Taliban have captured theAfghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, leaving only the isolated capital Kabul between them and a complete military takeover of the country.

Photo credit: AFP

Kabul

The Taliban captured the key northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday, leaving only the isolated capital Kabul between them and a complete military takeover of the country.

With the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, once an anti-Taliban bastion, the insurgents now control almost the entire country -- an astonishing rout of government forces and warlord militias achieved in just 10 days.

Hours before the city was seized, Afghanistan's beleaguered president, Ashraf Ghani, sought to project a semblance of authority with a national address in which he spoke of "re-mobilising" the military while seeking a "political solution" to the crisis.

But the loss of Mazar-i-Sharif was a huge blow for Ghani and his government, and left the Taliban -- who have fighters less than an hour's drive from Kabul -- holding all the cards in any negotiated surrender of the capital.

Emergency evacuation

President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 US troops to help secure the emergency evacuation from Kabul of embassy employees and thousands of Afghans who worked for American forces and now fear Taliban reprisals.

That was on top of the 3,000 American soldiers deployed in recent days, and 1,000 left in-country after Biden announced in May that the final withdrawal of the 20-year military presence in Afghanistan would be completed by September 11.

That decision has come under increased scrutiny given the collapse of the Afghan armed forces, but he insisted Saturday there was no choice.

"I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan -- two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth," Biden said.

Heavy fighting

In Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban fighters quickly took charge.

"They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration," said Atiqullah Ghayor, who lives near the city's famed blue mosque.

Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance in the city to support government forces, had fled to Uzbekistan, about 30 kilometres to the north, an aide to Noor said.

Noor later tweeted that they had been betrayed by the military and were in a "safe place", adding: "I have a lot of untold stories that I will share in due course."

As the Taliban closed in on the capital, panicked residents formed long lines outside banks, hoping to withdraw their savings. Some branches appeared to have already run of cash.

Residents near Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul told AFP they heard gunfire coming from the facility -- possibly the result of an inmate uprising.

Stop the violence

In his first address to the nation since the Taliban launched their sweeping offensive, which was recorded, Ghani said he wanted to stop the violence.

"I will not let the imposed war on people cause more deaths," he said, appearing sombre and sitting before an Afghan flag.

Ghani said the armed forces could be "remobilized" and consultations were taking place to try to help end the fighting, but offered few specifics on what his administration was planning.

The presidential palace later said: "A delegation with authority should soon be appointed by the government and be ready for negotiation."

Further details were not immediately available.

'Crying night and day'

For Kabul residents and the tens of thousands who have sought refuge there in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of apprehension and fear.

Muzhda, 35, a single woman who arrived in the capital with her two sisters after fleeing nearby Parwan, said she was terrified.

"I am crying day and night," she told AFP. "If the Taliban come and force me to marry, I will commit suicide."

The Taliban imposed an ultra-austere brand of Islam on Afghanistan during their 1996-2001 rule.

The scale and speed of their advance have shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the insurgents in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Soldiers surrender

Individual Afghan soldiers, units and even whole divisions have surrendered -- handing the Taliban even more vehicles and military hardware for their lightning advance.

Biden on Saturday warned the insurgents that any attempt to disrupt the American evacuation mission would be met with a "swift and strong US military response".

The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north and, just hours later, the seizure of Kandahar -- the group's spiritual heartland in the south.

Asadabad, the capital of Kunar in the east, and Gardez also fell on Saturday before Mazar-i-Sharif.

After Ghani's TV speech, Kabul-based analyst Sayed Naser Mosawi said it appeared the president was "willing to give into some sort of settlement -- if that doesn't mean surrender".

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