The Taliban has claimed control over two of Afghanistan's biggest cities, according to media reports, as the United States and Britain said they would send thousands of troops to help remove their embassy staff. The capture of Kandahar and Herat - the country's second- and third-largest cities - would represent the Taliban's two biggest military victories since they began a broad offensive in May.
The fall of major cities was a sign that Afghans welcome the Taliban, a spokesperson for the group said, according to Al Jazeera TV. The US State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States "remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan".
They also said the United States was committed to supporting a political solution to the conflict. In response to the Taliban's swift and violent advances, the Pentagon said it would send about 3000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate embassy staff.
"We expect to draw down to a core diplomatic presence in Afghanistan in the coming weeks," said State Department spokesperson Ned Price, adding the embassy was not closed. The State Department said it would also increase the tempo of Special Immigration Visa flights for Afghans who helped the US effort in the country.
Britain said it would deploy about 600 troops to help its nationals and local translators get out. The Associated Press reported Canada would send special forces to evacuate its Kabul embassy before it closes. As the United Nations warned a Taliban offensive reaching the capital would have a "catastrophic impact on civilians", the United States and Germany urged all their citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately.
In Qatar, international envoys to Afghan negotiations called for an accelerated peace process as a "matter of great urgency", and for an immediate halt to attacks on cities. The fall of Kandahar and Herat was reported by media including the AP.
Combined, the cities represent the two biggest prizes yet for the Taliban in their offensive in the past week. "As you can see, we are inside the Herat police headquarters right now," a Taliban fighter said in a video shared by a group spokesperson, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi.
Earlier on Thursday, the Taliban captured Ghazni, on the Kandahar-to-Kabul road about 150 kilometres southwest of the capital. On Wednesday, a US defence official cited US intelligence as saying the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it over within 90.
With phone lines down across much of the country, Reuters was unable to immediately contact government officials to confirm which of the cities under attack remained in government hands. The speed and violence of the Taliban offensive have sparked recriminations among many Afghans over President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw US troops, 20 years after they ousted in the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 US attacks.
Biden said on Tuesday he does not regret his decision, noting Washington has spent more than $US1 trillion in America's longest war and lost thousands of troops. He said the United States continued to provide significant air support, food, equipment and salaries to Afghan forces.
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the exit strategy was sending the United States "hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975". In a deal struck with former US President Donald Trump's administration last year, the insurgents agreed not to attack US-led foreign forces as they withdrew.
The Taliban also made a commitment to discuss peace. Given the speed of the Taliban's advance, prospects for diplomatic pressure to affect the situation on the ground seemed limited, although the Taliban spokesman told Al Jazeera: "We will not close the door to the political track."
AAP with The Project