The Taliban was on the brink of total victory in Afghanistan on Sunday, with its fighters ordered to wait on the outskirts of the capital and the government conceding it was preparing for a "transfer of power."
The Taliban's militants surrounded Kabul following an astonishing rout of government forces and warlord militias achieved in just 10 days.
The fall of Kabul would see the hardline Islamic group take back power two decades after US-led forces toppled it in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul, not to try to enter the city," a spokesman for the Taliban tweeted as residents reported insurgents on the outskirts of the city. "Until the completion of the transition process, the responsibility for the security of Kabul is with the other side [the Afghan government]."
The Afghan government soon after signalled there were negotiations underway to avoid bloodshed in Kabul, and to give the Taliban control.
"The Afghan people should not worry... there will be no attack on the city and there will be a peaceful transfer of power to the transitional government," Interior Minister Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal said in a recorded speech.
But the Taliban's imminent takeover triggered fear and panic in Kabul among residents fearful of the group's hardline brand of Islam.
"I saw police taking off their uniforms and putting on shalwar kameez," said one resident, referring to traditional South Asian clothing.
The scale and speed of the insurgents' advance have shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country over the past two decades.
President Ashraf Ghani's government was left completely isolated on Sunday after the Taliban claimed the anti-Taliban northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif and the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Like with most of the other captured cities, the seizure of power came after government forces surrendered or retreated.
It left the Taliban holding all the cards in any negotiated surrender of the capital.
On Saturday Ghani sought to project authority with a national address in which he spoke of "re-mobilising" the military while seeking a "political solution" to the crisis.
He urged government forces Sunday to maintain security in Kabul, after the Taliban paused their sweeping advance on the outskirts of the capital, causing widespread panic.
"It is our responsibility and we will do it in the best possible manner. Anyone who thinks about chaos, plunder or looting will be tackled with force," he said in a video released to media.
US President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 US troops to help secure the emergency evacuation from Kabul of embassy employees and thousands of Afghans who worked for American forces and now fear Taliban reprisals.
That was on top of the 3,000 American soldiers deployed in recent days, and 1,000 left in-country after Biden announced in May that the final withdrawal of the 20-year military presence in Afghanistan would be completed by September 11.
That decision has come under increased scrutiny given the collapse of the Afghan Armed Forces, but he insisted Saturday there was no choice.
"I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth," Biden said.
Videos posted on pro-Taliban social media accounts showed the group's heavily armed fighters in cities across the country, waving white flags and greeting locals.
Most of the fighters appeared young, suggesting they were most likely infants or unborn when the Taliban was toppled from power in 2001.
In Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban fighters quickly took charge on Sunday.
"They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration," said Atiqullah Ghayor, who lives near the city's famed blue mosque.
Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance in the city to support government forces, had fled to Uzbekistan, about 30 kilometres to the north, an aide to Noor said.
As the Taliban closed in on the capital, panicked residents swarmed banks for a second straight day, hoping to withdraw their savings.
Many were already resigned to the Taliban taking power.
"My only wish is that their return leads to peace. That is all we want," said Kabul shopkeeper Tariq Nezami.
For the tens of thousands who have sought refuge in Kabul in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of apprehension and fear.
One doctor who arrived in the capital with his 35-strong family from Kunduz said he planned to return today.
"I am worried there will be a lot of fighting here. I would rather return home, where I know it has stopped," he told AFP, asking not to be named.
by Jay Deshmukh, AFP