Afghan President Ashraf Ghani returned to the capital Wednesday after a flying visit to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to rally his beleaguered forces, with Taliban fighters having now taken more than a quarter of the country's provincial capitals in less than a week
His visit was overshadowed by the mass surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz, along with the overnight capture of another provincial capital – the ninth city to be overrun since Friday.
One Army officer, who asked not to be identified, said they had endured withering mortar fire at Kunduz airport and were left with no choice but to surrender.
"There was no way to fight back," he told AFP. "My unit, with 20 soldiers, three humvees and four pick-up trucks just surrendered. We are now all waiting to get our pardon letter. There is a big queue."
In Mazar, Ghani held talks with long-time local strongman Atta Mohammad Noor and infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum about the defence of the city, as Taliban fighters inched closer to its outskirts.
Officials gave no indication of the outcome, but later Wednesday said two of the country's top soldiers had been replaced by General Hibatullah Alizia as armed forces chief and General Sami Sadat leading the elite commandos.
The loss of Mazar would be a catastrophic blow to the Kabul government and represent the complete collapse of its control over the north -- long a bastion of anti-Taliban militias.
Hours before Ghani arrived, pictures posted on official government social media accounts showed Dostum boarding a plane in Kabul en route to Mazar, along with a contingent of commandos.
'The Taliban never learn'
After arriving in the city, Dostum issued a warning to the approaching insurgents.
"The Taliban never learn from the past," he told reporters, vowing to kill the jihadists.
"The Taliban have come to the north several times but they were always trapped. It is not easy for them to get out."
Dostum stands accused of massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war during the US-backed operations in 2001 that toppled the hardline Islamists' rule over the country.
Fighting in Afghanistan's long-running conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal set to be completed before the end of the month.
Further to the east of Mazar, in Badakhshan province's capital Faizabad, a local lawmaker told AFP that security forces had retreated after days of heavy clashes.
"The Taliban have captured the city," said Zabihullah Attiq.
Kunduz remains the Taliban's biggest prize to date, with the mass surrender at the airport making a potential counterattack to retake the provincial capital unlikely for the time being.
An unknown number of government forces were still holding out at an army barracks outside the city.
The insurgents appeared to be consolidating their hold over captured cities in the north, with rifle-toting militants patrolling the streets of Kunduz on foot and in captured armoured humvees as smoke rose from smouldering shops destroyed during the fight for the city.
Government forces were also battling the hardline Islamists in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern Pashto-speaking provinces from where the Taliban draw their strength.
Indifferent to peace
In Kandahar, heavy fighting was reported near the city's prison, on the outskirts of the city, which the militants have been trying to reach for weeks.
The Taliban claimed on Twitter late Wednesday that the facility was "completely conquered after a long siege".
"Hundreds of prisoners were released and taken to safety. Prison security personnel also surrendered," the tweet said.
The Taliban frequently target prisons to release incarcerated fighters and replenish their ranks.
US diplomats, meanwhile, were desperately trying to breathe life back into all-but-dead talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in Doha, where Washington's special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was pushing the insurgents to accept a ceasefire.
The Taliban have appeared largely indifferent to peace overtures, and seem intent on a military victory to crown a return to power after their ouster 20 years ago in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
After conquering most of the north, the Taliban have now set their sights on Mazar – long a linchpin for the government's control of the area -- after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.
Mazar saw some of the bloodiest fighting during the Taliban's scorched-earth rampage through the country in the 1990s, with rights groups accusing the jihadists of massacring up to 2,000 civilians – mostly Shiite Hazaras – after capturing the city in 1998.
Timeline: the Taliban's sweeping offensive
The Taliban have taken more than a quarter of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals in less than a week as US-led foreign forces pull out of the country. We look at their growing offensive.
In early May, NATO begins a final withdrawal of its mission in Afghanistan involving 9,600 soldiers – 2,500 of them American. Intense fighting breaks out between the Taliban and government forces in southern Helmand province and the insurgents capture Burka in northern Baghlan province. A bomb blast outside a girls' school on May 8 in Kabul kills 85, mostly pupils. The deadliest attack in a year is blamed on the Taliban, though they do not claim it. Mid-May, US forces withdraw from the air base in Kandahar, one of the largest in the country.
The insurgents seize districts in Wardak province, 40 km (25 miles) from Kabul, and restive Ghazni, a key province straddling roads connecting Kabul to Kandahar, the second-largest city. In mid-June, the Taliban capture several districts in the northern provinces of Faryab, Takhar and Badakhshan, forcing the military to retreat from a number of areas.
The Taliban take control of the main Shir Khan Bandar border crossing with Tajikistan, prompting the Central Asian country to check the combat readiness of its armed forces on June 22. The insurgents seize other routes to Tajikistan, as well as the districts leading to Kunduz, capital of the northern province of the same name, about 50 kilometres from the Tajik border.
US leaves Bagram
Officials on July 2 announce the departure of all US and NATO troops from Bagram, Afghanistan's biggest air base, which served as the linchpin of US-led operations in the country for the previous two decades. Two days later, the Taliban seize the key district of Panjwai in Kandahar, the insurgents' birthplace and former bastion.
On July 9 the Taliban announce the capture of Afghanistan's biggest border crossing with Iran, Islam Qala.
Two days later Afghan authorities install an anti-missile system at Kabul airport to counter incoming rockets. On July 14, the insurgents take control of the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan, a key trade route between the two countries. The Taliban claim on July 22 they control 90 percent of Afghanistan's borders, a figure disputed by the government and impossible to verify.
In a sharp escalation over the first weekend of August, the Taliban offensive focuses on urban centres, with the insurgents attacking at least three provincial capitals – Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat. The US and Britain say the Taliban may have committed "war crimes," accusing the insurgents of "massacring civilians" in the town of Spin Boldak. Eight people are killed on August 3 in a coordinated Taliban-claimed bomb and gun attack targeting the Afghan defence minister and several lawmakers in Kabul. On August 6, the Taliban shoot dead the head of the Afghan government's media information centre at a mosque in the capital. The Taliban capture their first Afghan provincial capital, the city of Zaranj in southwestern Nimroz, taking it "without a fight." The following days several other northern cities fall: Sheberghan, Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan, Aibak, Farah and Pul-e-Khumri. Despite the bloodshed and sweeping advances, US President Joe Biden gives no suggestion he may delay the withdrawal deadline. On Wednesday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flies to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to rally his forces. But his visit is overshadowed by the surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz, the biggest city to fall so far. Added to this is the overnight capture of a ninth provincial capital, Faizabad.