KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban captured Afghanistan’s third-largest city and a strategic provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, further squeezing the country’s embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.
The seizure of Herat marks the biggest prize yet for the Taliban, which has taken 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a weeklong blitz.
Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city — which dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great — and seized government buildings.
Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building, while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents’ control.
The capture of Ghazni, meanwhile, cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after United States 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 estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation.
Thousands of people have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public amputations, stonings and executions.
Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats met throughout the day.
The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months.
The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban keeps up its momentum.
The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces and renews questions about where the over $830 billion spent by the US Defense Department on fighting, training those troops, and reconstruction efforts went — especially as Taliban fighters ride on American-made Humvees and pickup trucks with M-16s slung across their shoulders.
Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists over the days of fighting, instead issuing video communiques that downplay the Taliban advance.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines.
Afghan lawmaker Semin Barekzai also acknowledged the city’s fall to the Taliban, saying that some officials there had escaped.