The Taliban launched a multi-pronged assault on Saturday on Mazar-i-Sharif, a major city in northern Afghanistan, as it continues an offensive to capture more cities and provinces across the country.
The fighters have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in a breakneck military operation less than three weeks before the United States is set to withdraw its last troops, raising fears of a full takeover or another Afghan civil war.
With the Taliban in control of two-thirds of the war-torn country, thousands have fled via the capital’s international airport. The US and European countries also started evacuating their embassy staff as the Taliban moves closer to the capital, Kabul.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Afghanistan is “spinning out of control”, and urged the group to immediately halt its offensive.
Here are the latest updates:
German army prepares for large evacuation mission from Kabul
Germany’s armed forces have begun preparations for a mission to Afghanistan to evacuate German citizens and local Afghan employees out of the country, sources told DPA news agency on Saturday.
A measure to authorise the mission was said to be moving quickly through parliament so that the Rapid Forces Division could deploy within a week.
There are currently well over 100 German nationals in Afghanistan, including diplomats and staff at the embassy in Kabul, as well as experts at other ministries and organisations.
President Ghani no longer ‘in control’: Analyst
Haroun Rahimi, a law professor at the American University of Afghanistan, said the Afghan government’s leverage is “shrinking”.
President Ghani is “not in control anymore,” Rahimi told Al Jazeera. “It’s not about President Ghani anymore, it’s about making the transition as bloodlessly, as orderly and as swiftly as possible.”
According to Rahimi, if Kabul falls under pressure, all hopes for a political settlement will be lost.
Rahimi believes that the government needs to be handed over to a transitional authority – one that has the “credibility to negotiate on behalf of the anti-Taliban camp”, with the Taliban for some sort of power-sharing agreement.
We need someone who can credibly negotiate and come to some sort of agreement with TB before all is lost.
Ghani is not that person. Transfer power to an interim authority in exchange for a ceasefire that would give us a moment of respite to avoid worst case scenario. https://t.co/8BbTyjXK2E
— Haroun Rahimi (@harounrahimi1) August 14, 2021
Transition to different government still a possibility, analyst says
Victoria Fontan, professor of peace studies in the American University of Afghanistan, said the “consultations” Ghani referred to in his speech may be for a transition to a different government.
“This is something that the Afghan government proposed a few days ago, and it could be that this solution could end the current violence,” Fontan said.
“However, the Taliban have asked for Ashraf Ghani to step down, and have already rejected this type of negotiated settlement – so, it remains to be seen what happens with the position of President Ghani.”
Fontan added that she does not think the government can withstand the Taliban tide.
“There is a lot of talk in Kabul about the impending independence day on Thursday … Many think that the Taliban are going to go for Kabul this weekend and declare independence,” she said.
President Ashraf Ghani: ‘Consultations with international partners’ under way
In a televised speech, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addressed the nation for the first time since the Taliban made major gains in recent days.
Ghani said “widespread consultations with representatives of the people and leaders and with our international partners” are being carried out in a “speedy manner”.
“In the current situation, the remobilisation of our security and defense forces is our top priority, and serious steps are being taken in this regard,” he said.
“I would like to assure you as your president … we are going to prevent further displacement of people,” Ghani added, without providing more details.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said the president has become “increasingly embattled by this crisis”.
“There has been an awful lot of speculation that there might be some kind of change in leadership … Even possibly that he might be standing back from government,” McBride said.
But, Ghani seems to have “recommitted himself to carrying on the struggle,” McBride said, despite being under a lot of pressure that a politican solution to the crisis is needed.
Afghan president addresses nation
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is delivering a televised address, his first public remarks since the Taliban made major gains in recent days.
Ghani’s last public appearance was on Wednesday in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the armed group launched a multi-pronged attack early on Saturday.
Taliban captures Pul-e-Alam, local provincial council member says
The Taliban captured the city of Pul-e-Alam, around 70 kilometres (43 miles) from the capital, Kabul, a local provincial council member said.
The Taliban fighters did not face much resistance, he told Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
The city is a key staging post for a potential assault on Kabul.
Kabul seen as relative ‘place of refuge’
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said people who are fleeing the fighting seem to be “drawn towards Kabul”, seeing it as a “place of refuge and relative safety”.
The humanitarian situation, he said, is an “unfolding catastrophe” as influxes of people are coming into the city.
“In the recent weeks or so, we’ve seen people coming mainly from the north where we’ve had fighting. Now that we’ve had an uptick in fighting … [in the south], we will expect to see that reflected in influxes coming into the south of the city,” McBride said.
The government is struggling to cope with the influxes and move people to other temporary camps, he added, while international aid organisations have promised more help.
Taliban seizes province near capital
The Taliban seized a province just south of Afghanistan’s capital.
The armed group captured all of Logar and detained its provincial officials, Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province, said. She said the Taliban has reached the Char Asyab district, just 11km (seven miles) south of the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban has made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second and third-largest cities. It now controls 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Taliban closes in on Kabul as US ramps up Afghan evacuations
The Afghan Taliban tightened its territorial stranglehold around Kabul as refugees from the group’s relentless offensive flooded the capital and about 3,000 US marines returned to oversee emergency evacuations from Afghanistan.
With the country’s second and third-largest cities having fallen into Taliban hands, Kabul has effectively become the besieged last stand for government forces who have offered little or no resistance elsewhere.
The US and other countries are scrambling to airlift their nationals out of Kabul ahead of a feared all-out assault.
Taliban launches multi-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif
An Afghan official said the Taliban launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-i-Sharif, a major city in northern Afghanistan defended by powerful former warlords.
Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor in northern Balkh province, says the Taliban attacked the city from several directions.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had flown to Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city’s defences, meeting with several militia commanders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, who command thousands of fighters.
Weapon seizures ‘massive boon’ for Taliban
The US spent billions supplying the Afghan military with the tools to defeat the Taliban, but the rapid capitulation of the armed forces means that weaponry is now fuelling the armed group’s battlefield successes.
The Taliban’s social media is awash with videos of Taliban fighters seizing weapons caches – the majority supplied by Western powers.
Footage of Afghan soldiers surrendering in the northern city of Kunduz shows army vehicles loaded with heavy weapons and mounted with artillery guns in the hands of the group’s rank and file.
In the western city of Farah, fighters patrolled in a car marked with an eagle swooping on a snake – the official insignia of the country’s intelligence service.
Rush of troops to Kabul tests Biden’s withdrawal deadline
The last-minute decision to send 3,000 US troops to Afghanistan to help partially evacuate the US embassy is calling into question whether President Joe Biden will meet his August 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces.
Officials have stressed the newly arriving troops’ mission is limited to assisting the airlift of embassy personnel and Afghan allies, and they expect to complete it by month’s end.
Republican politicians have already criticised the withdrawal as a mistake and ill-planned, though there is little political appetite by either party to send more troops to fight the Taliban.
Taliban takes over radio station after capturing Kandahar
The Taliban seized a radio station in Kandahar and took to the airwaves. The group released a video in which an unnamed fighter announced the takeover of the city’s main radio station, which has been renamed the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
He said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
The Taliban has operated mobile radio stations over the years, but has not operated a station inside a major city since it ruled the country from 1996-2001. At that time, it also ran a station called Voice of Sharia out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the armed group.
UN chief: Afghanistan ‘spinning out of control’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his first appeal directly to the armed group that he is “deeply disturbed by early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women and journalists”.
“Afghanistan is spinning out of control,” he said. “It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away from them.
“This is the moment to halt the offensive,” Guterres said. “This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war or the isolation of Afghanistan.”
Kabul airport busy as thousands seek to flee
Thousands of Afghans and other travellers have fled the country on flights from Kabul international airport.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters “there is no evacuation of UN staff going on,” but the UN has reduced staff, including in Afghanistan’s second-largest city Kandahar and third-largest city Herat. He said the UN remains “with a very light footprint” in both cities.
The UN has about 300 international staff and almost 3,400 national staff working in Afghanistan, and Dujarric said it is relocating some staff from different places into Kabul.
Pakistan official urges Afghan gov’t to talk with Taliban
Pakistan’s national security adviser is urging Afghan leaders to try to quickly reach a politically negotiated settlement with the Taliban to avoid further violence.
The adviser, Moeed Yusuf, stressed the fall of city after city in neighbouring Afghanistan underscores the need to expedite the peace process.
“Trust me, if they sit down, they will be able to come out with some sort of settlement and we will respect whatever Afghans decide,” Yusuf said.
He added: “History will judge us very badly and poorly if we don’t put all efforts behind [this] for a political settlement” on the Afghan crisis.
Read our previous liveblog here