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Afghanistan Live Updates: Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Herat Fall to the Taliban; U.S. Readies Evacuation

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Over the past week the Taliban have captured more than a dozen of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals, positioning them well to attack the capital, Kabul, just weeks before U.S. troops are expected to end their military mission there.CreditCredit…Photo by Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Three major cities in western and southern Afghanistan were confirmed on Friday to have fallen to the Taliban, as the insurgents’ race to take control of the country accelerated.

The Taliban seized Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, on Friday morning after a weekslong battle that left parts of the city in ruins, hospitals filled with the wounded and dying, and residents asking what would come next under their new rulers. Hours earlier, the insurgents had captured Herat, a cultural hub in the west, and Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, where the Taliban first proclaimed their so-called emirate in the 1990s.

The speed of the cities’ collapse, combined with American officials’ announcement Thursday that they would evacuate most of the United States Embassy, has deepened the sense of panic across the country as thousands try to flee from the Taliban advance.

Only three major Afghan cities — the capital, Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif — remain under government control, and one is under siege by the Taliban. With the collapse of both Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, the Taliban now effectively control southern Afghanistan, a powerful symbol of their resurgence, just weeks before the United States is set to completely withdraw from the country.

Over the past week, the Taliban have taken one Afghan city after another in a rapid offensive that has left them well positioned to attack Kabul. The government’s forces appear close to a complete collapse. Some American officials fear that the Afghan government will not last another month.

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On Friday, the Taliban also seized Pul-e-Alam, the provincial capital of Logar Province, south of Kabul, and Firoz Koh, the provincial capital of Ghor Province, in central Afghanistan.

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“Sporadic clashes happened last night, but no serious resistance was reported,” said Gul Zaman Naeb, a member of Parliament representing Ghor Province. “When the people woke up this morning, they saw Taliban fighters in the streets and government offices.”

Helmand Province is a volatile swath of territory, much of which the Taliban have controlled since 2015. In recent months, the Afghan government has struggled to hold ground there, and recent airstrikes in the region by the United States and Afghan air forces failed to stop the Taliban offensive.

Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, has been on the brink of disaster for more than a decade. Helmand has long been home to the Taliban, who spread to the province after the group’s rise in neighboring Kandahar in 1994 and proceeded to make millions there off the illicit sale of opium poppies.

The fall of Lashkar Gah is a sad coda for the American and British military missions in Helmand that, combined, lasted over a decade. Both countries focused much of their efforts on securing the province, losing hundreds of troops to roadside bombs and brutal gunfights there.

Kandahar, in particular, is a huge prize for the Taliban. It is the economic hub of southern Afghanistan, and it was the birthplace of the insurgency in the 1990s, serving as the militants’ capital for part of their five-year rule. By seizing the city, the Taliban can effectively proclaim a return to power, if not complete control.

On Friday, officials from Uruzgan and Zabul, two provinces long considered part of the Taliban’s heartland, said that local elders in both were negotiating a complete handover of the territory to the insurgent group.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, and Sharif Hassan from Kabul.

President Biden in New Castle, Del., on Thursday. The Biden administration is bracing for a possible collapse of the Afghan government within the next month.
Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

As the Taliban capture provincial capitals with alarming speed, the Pentagon is moving 3,000 Marines and soldiers to Afghanistan and another 4,000 troops to the region to evacuate most of the American Embassy and U.S. citizens in Kabul.

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It is a powerful sign of the deteriorating situation in the country as well as one that appears to reinforce President Biden’s order to shut down America’s longest war.

The Biden administration is bracing for a possible collapse of the Afghan government within the next month, administration and military officials said.

The Taliban’s rapid advance across the north, and Afghan security forces’ battle to defend ever shrinking territory in the south and west, has forced the Biden administration to accelerate plans to get Americans out.

Mr. Biden, after meeting with his top national security advisers on Wednesday night and again Thursday morning, also ordered additional expedited flights out of the country for Afghans who have worked with the United States, so that their applications for special immigrant visas could be evaluated.

The embassy sent the latest in a series of alarming alerts, urging Americans to “leave Afghanistan immediately using available commercial flight options.”

And in Washington, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, announced what he described as a drawdown of an unspecified number of civilians among the roughly 4,000 embassy personnel — including about 1,400 American citizens — to begin immediately.

“As we’ve said all along, the increased tempo of the Taliban military engagements and the resulting increase in violence and instability across Afghanistan is of grave concern,” he said. “We’ve been evaluating the security situation every day to determine how best to keep those serving at our embassy safe.”

But, Mr. Price added, “Let me be very clear about this: The embassy remains open.”

American negotiators are also trying to extract assurances from the Taliban that they will not attack the U.S. Embassy in Kabul if they take over the country’s government, three American officials said.

The estimate that Kabul could fall in 30 days is one scenario, and administration and military officials insist that it might still be prevented if the Afghan security forces can muster the resolve to put up more resistance. But while Afghan commandos have managed to continue fighting in some areas, they have largely folded in a number of northern provincial capitals.

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A line formed at the passport office in Kabul in July.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Across Afghanistan, a mass exodus is unfolding as the Taliban press on in their brutal military campaign, bringing fears of a harsh return to extremist rule or a civil war between ethnically aligned militias.

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About 330,000 Afghans were displaced as of the end of July, more than half of them fleeing their homes since the United States began its withdrawal in May, according to the United Nations.

Many have flooded into makeshift tent camps or crowded into relatives’ homes in cities, the last islands of government control in many provinces. Thousands more are trying to secure passports and visas to leave the country altogether. Others have crammed into smugglers’ pickup trucks in a desperate bid to slip illegally over the border.

On Thursday, senior United Nations officials warned about the growing risks of a humanitarian crisis in the country.

“We are particularly concerned about the shift of fighting to urban areas, where the potential for civilian harm is even greater,” Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, told correspondents at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Mr. Guterres expressed hope that discussions between the Afghan government, the Taliban and international envoys would create a pathway to a negotiated settlement. But with the Taliban appearing intent on controlling the country, that goal appears increasingly elusive.

As the insurgents have pressed their offensive in recent weeks, the number of Afghans crossing the border illegally has shot up about 30 to 40 percent compared with the period before international troops began withdrawing in May, according to the International Organization for Migration. At least 30,000 people are now fleeing every week.

The sudden flight is an early sign of a looming refugee crisis, aid agencies warn, raising alarms in neighboring countries and in Europe.

Afghans currently account for one of the world’s largest populations of refugees and asylum seekers — around three million people — and represent the second-highest number of asylum claims in Europe, after Syrians.

Now the country is at the precipice of another bloody chapter, but the new outpouring of Afghans comes as attitudes toward migrants have hardened around the world.

“Afghanistan is on the brink of another humanitarian crisis,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in July. “A failure to reach a peace agreement in Afghanistan and stem the current violence will lead to further displacement.”

As the Taliban take control of city after city in Afghanistan, leading to fears that the capital, Kabul, could fall in a matter of weeks, the humanitarian crisis is growing as fighting escalates.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan last month in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Credit…Associated Press

BRUSSELS — The rapid collapse of the Afghan armed forces has surprised Europeans, but Afghanistan has never been viewed as a vital national interest for European nations.

NATO went to war in Afghanistan to support the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks in the name of collective defense against terrorism. Since then, the terrorist threat in Europe has originated much closer to home — more from North Africa and domestic sources.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, issued a statement Thursday night calling on the Taliban to immediately resume talks with the Afghan government in Qatar and to respect human rights. Echoing State Department warnings, he said that “if power is taken by force and an Islamic Emirate re-established, the Taliban would face nonrecognition, isolation, lack of international support.”

But Europe has little leverage, despite the roughly $4.6 billion in development aid it has provided. European leaders, like others around the world, are worried about how long the Afghan government will last, about what will happen to women and girls and judges and the media under a renewed Taliban rule, and about a new wave of migration from Afghan refugees.

Earlier this week, ministers from six countries — Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Denmark — called for the continuation of deportations from Europe for Afghans whose asylum claims have been rejected.

But given the speed of the collapse, Germany, the Netherlands and France have halted sending Afghans who do not qualify as refugees back to Afghanistan.

Brussels is also working with member states to extract and provide visas for the 100 or so local Afghans who worked for the European Union itself.

For NATO, the mantra was always “in together, out together.” Once President Biden decided to pull the plug, NATO troops also began leaving at speed; there is little appetite for returning.

In Britain, which fought hard in Afghanistan and has a long history of involvement in the country, there is more chagrin and even anger.

Lord David Richards, who was chief of defense from 2010 to 2013, criticized his government for moving so quickly to evacuate Britons. He told “BBC Newsnight” that the evacuation “is a tacit, explicit really, admission of a dismal failure of geostrategy and of statecraft.”

He said he had hoped to hear “an explanation for why we’re in this position, and then, an explanation on how they are going to avert this disaster.” Instead, there was just “an admission of failure and a desire to pull people out,” he said, adding, “I’m almost ashamed that we’re in this position.”

Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, last year.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Taliban’s capture of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, is a devastating blow to the Afghan government and has both symbolic and strategic resonance for the insurgent group.

The fight for Kandahar was, in some ways, the most important one for the country’s future so far.

The insurgents have been desperate to capture the city — the Taliban first took root in its neighboring districts in the 1990s before seizing the city itself and announcing their emirate. It is also the main city in Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun heartland in the south.

The government has been desperate to defend it, given its status as an emblem of the state’s reach and its role as an economic hub essential for trade to and from Pakistan through its checkpoints, bridges and highways.

The insurgents had been encroaching on Kandahar city, the capital of the province of the same name, for several weeks, capturing surrounding districts, before entering the city for the first time on July 9.

Taliban fighters at the time made their way into Kandahar’s Seventh Police District, seizing houses and engaging in gun battles with security forces. Commandos and other special forces units battled the insurgents, proceeding cautiously because the area is heavily populated, said Bahir Ahmadi, the spokesman for Kandahar’s governor.

The Afghan Air Force struck a number of Taliban positions in neighboring districts as the insurgents tried to push their way into the city.

U.S. military aircraft also struck Taliban positions in July in support of faltering Afghan government forces, in one of the first significant American reactions to the insurgents’ blistering advance across Afghanistan as U.S. troops withdrew.

At least one of the strikes was against Taliban positions in the city of Kandahar, slowing the Taliban’s advance. A month later, the fall of Kandahar will deeply shake a country still trying to come to terms with the Taliban’s rapid encroachment.

British soldiers with the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission forces last year in Kabul.
Credit…Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

As the United States is moving thousands of troops to Afghanistan to evacuate U.S. citizens and embassy staff in Kabul, Britain said it would also deploy 600 military personnel to help its citizens leave the country.

The British authorities urged all British nationals to leave Afghanistan earlier this month, and on Thursday they said that the staff working at the embassy in Kabul had been reduced to a core team providing assistance to those still in the country.

“I have authorized the deployment of additional military personnel to support the diplomatic presence in Kabul, assist British nationals to leave the country and support the relocation of former Afghan staff who risked their lives serving alongside us,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a statement.

In a sign that the authorities fear the embassy may soon be unsafe, they said on Thursday that the core team remaining in Kabul would move from the embassy “to a more secure location.”

As the Taliban have seized one city after another, Britain has scrambled to evacuate former Afghan staff members who worked with British personnel. The defense ministry said that under a program launched in April, it had helped relocate more than 3,000 former Afghan staff members and their families, with 1,800 of them arriving over the last few weeks.

British combat troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014, after a 13-year intervention that at its peak saw 9,500 troops deployed across more than 130 bases in Helmand Province alone. On Friday morning, the Taliban seized Lashkar Gah, the province’s capital.

British opposition leaders said they supported the evacuation of British nationals, but at least one influential member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party said that sending troops to help with the withdrawal was “a sign of failure.”

Tom Tugendhat, a former member of the British armed forces who is now the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament, said on Twitter that “the decision to withdraw is like a rug pulled from under the feet of our partners.”

“Instead of a sustainable peace, incrementally building, we’re seeing a rout. Of course we are,” Mr. Tugendhat said.

A police outpost was destroyed by the Taliban after the group had briefly overrun it this month in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

With the Taliban sweeping across the country and the Afghan government controlling just three major cities, even experts have been surprised at how swiftly the nation is collapsing as American troops near the end of their withdrawal.

The Taliban’s summer-long military campaign has been followed by a lightning advance across a dozen provincial capitals, forcing widespread surrenders and retreats by Afghan government forces.

The Taliban military victories, especially in northern Afghanistan, where opposition to the militants has traditionally been strongest, have provided a violent coda to the U.S. military mission in America’s longest war.

As the United States prepares to leave the country, history is casting a long shadow.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Weeks after Al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that American forces had launched attacks against the terrorist group and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush said the Taliban, which then governed most of Afghanistan, had rejected his demand to turn over Al Qaeda leaders who had planned the attacks from bases inside Afghanistan. He said he intended to bring Qaeda leaders to justice, adding, “And now the Taliban will pay a price.”

Even then, the president warned that Operation Enduring Freedom would entail “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.”

By December 2001, the Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and other top commanders had fled to safety in Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally. American forces did not pursue them, and Pakistan ultimately evolved into a safe haven for Taliban commanders and fighters, who in subsequent years crossed the border to attack American and Afghan forces.

Inside Afghanistan, American troops quickly toppled the Taliban government and crushed its fighting forces as 2001 drew to a close.

Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

After routing the Taliban, the United States and NATO pivoted to rebuilding a failed state and establishing a Western-style democracy, spending billions trying to reconstruct a desperately poor country already ravaged by two decades of war, first during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and then during the proceeding civil war.

There were early successes. A pro-Western government was installed. New schools, hospitals and public facilities were built. Thousands of girls, barred from education under Taliban rule, attended school. Women, largely confined to their homes by the Taliban, went to college, joined the work force and served in Parliament and government. A vigorous, independent news media emerged.

But corruption was rampant, with hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction and investment money stolen or misappropriated. The government proved unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens. Often, its writ barely extended beyond the capital, Kabul, and other major cities.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

The Taliban rebuilt their fighting capabilities, despite a steady influx of American and NATO troops, who sought to win over Afghans with promises of new schools, government centers, roads and bridges.

With the Taliban posing an enhanced military threat, President Barack Obama deployed thousands more troops to Afghanistan as part of a “surge,” reaching nearly 100,000 by mid-2010. But the Taliban only grew stronger, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces despite American combat power and airstrikes.

In May 2011, a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had been living for years near a Pakistan military training academy. In June, Mr. Obama announced that he would start bringing American forces home and hand over responsibility for security to the Afghans by 2014.

By then, the Pentagon had concluded that the war could not be won militarily and that only a negotiated settlement could end the conflict — the third in three centuries involving a world power. Afghan fighters defeated the British army in the 19th century and the Russian military in the 20th century.



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