Taliban move closer to capital after taking Ghazni city
The city - the 10th provincial capital to fall to the insurgents in a week - lies along the major Kabul-Kandahar highway, effectively serving as a gateway between the capital and militant strongholds in the south.
"The Taliban took control of the key areas of the city - the governor’s office, the police headquarters and the prison," Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, head of the provincial council, told AFP.
He added that fighting continued in parts of the city but that the provincial capital was largely in the insurgents’ hands.
The Taliban also confirmed capturing the city, according to a statement posted by the insurgency’s spokesman on social media.
The Afghan conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when U.S.-led forces began the final stage of a troop withdrawal due to end later this month following a 20-year occupation.
The loss of the Ghazni will likely pile more pressure on the country’s already overstretched airforce, needed to bolster Afghanistan’s scattered security forces who have increasingly been cut off from reinforcements by road.
In less than a week the insurgents have seized 10 provincial capitals and have now encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Fighting was also raging in Kandahar and Lashkar Gar - pro-Taliban heartlands in the south - as well as Herat in the west.
Late on Aug. 11, the Taliban claimed to have overrun the heavily fortified jail in Kandahar, saying it was "completely conquered after a long siege" and that "hundreds of prisoners were released and taken to safety".
The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters and replenish their ranks.
The loss of the jail is a further ominous sign for the country’s second city, which has been besieged for weeks by the Taliban.
The city was once the stronghold of the Taliban - whose forces coalesced in the eponymously named province in the early 1990s - and its capture would serve as both a massive tactical and psychological victory for the militants.
'Taliban could take Afghan capital within 90 days'
Taliban could isolate Afghanistan's capital in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90, a U.S. defense official cited U.S. intelligence as saying.
The official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, said the new assessment of how long Kabul could stand was a result of the Taliban's rapid gains as U.S.-led foreign forces leave.
"But this is not a foregone conclusion," the official added, saying that the Afghan security forces could reverse the momentum by putting up more resistance.
All gateways to Kabul, which lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, were choked with civilians fleeing violence, a Western security source said. It was hard to tell whether Taliban fighters were also getting through, the source said.
"The fear is of suicide bombers entering the diplomatic quarters to scare, attack, and ensure everyone leaves at the earliest opportunity," he said.
The speed of the Taliban advance has shocked the government and its allies. The group, which controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when it was ousted for harboring al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11, wants to defeat the U.S.-backed government and reimpose strict Islamic law.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the attacks were against the spirit of a 2020 agreement.
The Taliban committed to talks on a peace accord that would lead to a "permanent and comprehensive ceasefire," Price said on Aug. 11.
"All indications at least suggest the Taliban are instead pursuing a battlefield victory."
"Attacking provincial capitals and targeting civilians is inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement," he said.
The United Nations said more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the past month, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said that since Aug. 1 some 4,042 wounded people had been treated at 15 health facilities.