The Taliban seized the stronghold of a notorious Afghan warlord Saturday, officials said, the second provincial capital to fall to the insurgents in less than 24 hours.
The deputy governor of Sheberghan city in Jawzjan said government forces and officials had retreated to the airport on the outskirts of the northern Afghan city, where they were preparing to defend themselves.
“The city has unfortunately fallen completely,” Jawzjan deputy governor Qader Malia told AFP.
The city is home to notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who only returned to Afghanistan this week from medical treatment in Turkey but is believed to be in Kabul.
The Taliban have gained vast parts of rural Afghanistan since launching a series of offensives in May to coincide with the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops.
On Friday, Zaranj city in Nimroz fell to the Taliban “without a fight,” according to its deputy governor, becoming the first provincial capital to be taken by the insurgents.
There was more resistance in Sheberghan, several sources told AFP, but an aide to Dostum confirmed the city had been taken.
Dostum has overseen one of the largest militias in the north, which garnered a fearsome reputation in its fight against the Taliban in the 1990s – along with accusations that his forces massacred thousands of insurgent prisoners of war.
A rout or retreat of his fighters would dent the Kabul government’s recent hopes that militia groups could help bolster the country’s overstretched military.
Roh Gul Khairzad, the deputy governor of Nimroz, told AFP Friday that Zaranj had fallen “without a fight.”
Social media posts suggested the Taliban were welcomed by some residents of the desert city, which has long had a reputation for lawlessness.
They showed captured military Humvees, luxury SUVs, and pickups speeding through the streets, flying white Taliban flags as local residents – mostly youths and young men – cheered them on.
One of the first things the insurgents did on entering Zaranj was to open the gates of a local jail, officials said, freeing Taliban prisoners along with common criminals.
Videos on Twitter showed mobs looting government offices, stealing desks, office chairs, cabinets, and televisions.
The veracity of the clips could not immediately be confirmed.
“The Afghan security forces lost their morale due to intense propaganda by the Taliban,” a senior official from the city, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
“Even before the Taliban attacks... most of the security forces put their weapons on the ground, took off their uniforms, and left their units and fled,” he said.
The government has made no official comment yet on the fall of either city.
The capture of Sheberghan comes a day after the head of the Afghan government’s media information department was shot dead in Kabul in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
After a failed assassination attempt on the country defense minister Tuesday, the Taliban warned they were now targeting senior administration officials in retaliation for increased air strikes.
The Taliban already control large portions of the countryside and are now challenging government forces in other provincial capitals including Herat, near the western border with Iran, and Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
From Kunduz, activist Rasikh Maroof told AFP by phone Saturday that fighting raged overnight on the outskirts of several parts of the city, with the Taliban apparently unable to gain significant inroads.
Government forces were “defending seriously,” he said, using airstrikes against Taliban mortars and heavy weapons.
Despite the deteriorating situation, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that President Joe Biden still believed it was right to pull US troops out after 20 years of war.
Both Washington and Britain on Saturday again urged citizens to evacuate from the country as soon as possible.
The withdrawal of foreign forces is due to be complete at the end of this month, ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States that sparked the invasion which toppled the Taliban.