KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban captured two major Afghan cities on Friday, according to the militant group and local officials, as vital hubs across the country collapsed and the United States rushed to evacuate its citizens.
The seizure of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west mark the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken a series of provincial capitals in a major blitz as U.S. troops pull out after two decades of war.
A Taliban spokesman told NBC News the group’s fighters had taken both cities, capitals of their respective provinces by the same name. Gul Ahmad Kamin, a member of parliament from Kandahar, confirmed to NBC News early Friday that the city had fallen. In Herat, local member of parliament Masood Karokhai said the Taliban had taken control of the city after launching an offensive from various locations. He said the region’s airport and military base outside the city were still controlled by government forces.
Washington said Thursday that the U.S. would send in 3,000 troops to help secure the withdrawal of most staff from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The move comes “in light of the evolving security situation,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, citing the Taliban’s advances and rising violence.
“This is not an abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal,” he said.
The move comes at the end of a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal launched in April, only weeks before the last remaining American forces were due to depart under an Aug. 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.
Separately, Britain said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country, and Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy.
The move to scale back the U.S. embassy staff comes after a warning to U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately and stunning battlefield advances by the Taliban.
The White House has come under criticism from some lawmakers and former U.S. officials for how it has managed the troop pullout, with critics saying the administration should have had more detailed plans in place to sustain Afghan security forces and to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. government.
The rapid fall of provincial capitals deals a heavy blow to the crumbling Afghan government forces who have struggled to contain the Taliban’s offensive as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw. The group has swept through the country faster than the U.S. military expected, three defense officials told NBC News, and at a pace that has even surprised some of the fighters themselves.
The militant group’s advance has sent swathes of Afghans fleeing their homes, seeking refuge both from the fighting and the prospect of the Islamist regime that ruled the country before 2001 being reimposed. While in power, the Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Islam under which women were largely invisible in public life.
Earlier Thursday, the militants raised their white flags imprinted with an Islamic proclamation of faith over the city of Ghazni, just 80 miles southwest of Kabul.
The capture of the city would cut off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital, Kabul, with the country’s southern provinces, all part of an insurgent push some 20 years after U.S. and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government.
While Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who are estimated to now hold over two-thirds of the country and continue to press their offensive.
The loss of Ghazni — which sits along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway — could also complicate resupply and movement for government forces, as well as squeeze the capital from the south.
Already, the Taliban’s weeklong blitz has seen the militants seize provincial capitals around the country. Many are in the country’s northeast corner, pressuring Kabul from that direction as well.
The Afghan government deployed Special Operators to Kandahar City, Lashkar Gah, Mazar-i-sharif, and Herat City in recent weeks to shore the key areas up against relentless Taliban attacks, three U.S. officials said, but now many of the elite Afghan forces are stretched thin and weary after weeks of fighting.
“All of the momentum is going one way right now,” a U.S. defense official said.
With Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the U.S. military has been conducting one to five airstrikes each day — weather permitting — a defense official said, primarily using unmanned drones that are flown from neighboring countries.
Most of the U.S. airstrikes destroy equipment that the Taliban have stolen from the Afghan military and police as they take over territory, including some weapons and equipment supplied by the U.S.
While these strikes can have a tactical or immediate impact on a specific battle, the airstrikes on a whole are not having a strategic impact on the fight between the Afghan military and the Taliban, a U.S. defense official said.
A handful of U.S. airstrikes will not stop the Taliban, they said.
Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, and Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.