‘What would Churchill say?’: MPs demand action to stabilise Afghanistan amid Taliban advance

Boris Johnson called an urgent Cobra meeting this afternoon as he faced growling pressure to act to stablise Afghanistan as the war-torn nation continued to capitulate to the Taliban.

The Prime Minister faced pressure from his own backbenchers as the Islamic extremists took major cities just weeks after allied troops ended their 20-year occupation.

Some 600 troops are due to deploy to Kabul within days to evacuate British nationals as a mass exodus begins to escape the ravages of the hardliners.   

Militants seized Pol-e Alam – the provincial capital of Logar – which lies 30 miles south of Kabul, according to a local official. They also captured the key cities of Lashkar Gah – the capital of the southern province of Helmand – earlier on Friday, and the capitals of Kandahar and Herat on Thursday, tightening the group’s grip on the country.

Former army officer and ex-defence minister Tobias Ellwood invoked Winston Churchill – the PM’s political hero – after the evacuation deployment was announced. 

Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee, said on Twitter: ‘What would Churchill say? This is NOT our finest hour. What happened to GLOBAL BRITAIN and AMERICA IS BACK?

‘The largest high tech military alliance ever – defeated by an insurgency armed with mines, RPGs and AK47s. We can and must do better.’

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace this morning said that the withdrawal of the US, the dominant military force in Afganistan, had meant the Uk had to leave as well. He said there has been no international will to carry on without Washington’s involvement.

But former defence minister and Afghanistan veteran Johnny Mercer contested the idea that the UK cannot act alone in the central Asian country.

The Conservative MP said the current situation was ‘deeply humiliating’, telling BBC Breakfast: ‘This idea we cannot act unilaterally and support the Afghan security forces is simply not true.

‘The political will to see through enduring support to Afghanistan has not been there and a lot of people are going to die because of that, and for me that is extremely humiliating.

‘It’s a world tragedy and we are going to reap the repercussions of this over many years to come.’ 

It came as:

  • The Taliban insurgency seized Lashkar Gah – the capital of the southern province of Helmand – on Friday
  • Afghan lawmakers also said Friday that officials have surrendered the capital of Uruzgan province to the rapidly advancing Taliban
  • On Thursday, the group took of Kandahar and Herat, marking the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long blitz
  • The government has now effectively lost control of most of the country, following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has also stunned Kabul’s American backers 
  • While the nation’s capital Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation  
  • Videos showed the Taliban’s offensive in multiple cities, including Kandahar and Lashkar Gah
  • One clip purportedly showed prisoners – released by the Taliban – walking free down a dirt road, while another showed Taliban forces raising the group’s flag outside what was claimed to be a government building
  • Spokesperson for the Taliban Suhail Shaheen blamed the Afghanistan government for the conflict, saying Taliban wanted a peaceful settlement, and that an agreement had been broken
  • Speaking to the BBC Today Programme, Shaheen – based in Doha – called the claims of the Taliban’s brutal regime ‘propaganda’ against the group
  • International envoys to Afghan negotiations in Qatar called for an accelerated peace process as a ‘matter of great urgency’ and for a halt to attacks on cities. 
  • Pakistan opened its Chaman border crossing for people who had been stranded in recent weeks. Juma Khan, the border town’s deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban
  • In Kabul and surrounding central provinces that remain under government control, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said ‘the security situation remained unstable and unpredictable with elevated conflict and violence.’ 
The economic centres of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second biggest city, and Lashkar Gah - the capital of the southern province of Helmand where many British troops were stationed - were the latest to fall to the insurgency, prompting questions over how long the capital Kabul will hold out. Pictured: Taliban fighters in a vehicle along the roadside in Herat today

The economic centres of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second biggest city, and Lashkar Gah - the capital of the southern province of Helmand where many British troops were stationed - were the latest to fall to the insurgency, prompting questions over how long the capital Kabul will hold out. Pictured: Taliban fighters in a vehicle along the roadside in Herat today

The economic centres of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second biggest city, and Lashkar Gah – the capital of the southern province of Helmand where many British troops were stationed – were the latest to fall to the insurgency, prompting questions over how long the capital Kabul will hold out. Pictured: Taliban fighters in a vehicle along the roadside in Herat today

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, on Friday after government forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being under siege

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, on Friday after government forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being under siege

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city, on Friday after government forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being under siege

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat today. The British Government has said it will be sending 600 troops to Afghanistan to help British nationals flee the country

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat today. The British Government has said it will be sending 600 troops to Afghanistan to help British nationals flee the country

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat today. The British Government has said it will be sending 600 troops to Afghanistan to help British nationals flee the country

UN begs Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep borders open 

The United Nations begged on Friday for neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to allow people to escape the Taliban, and U.N. agencies warned of a growing humanitarian catastrophe amid spreading hunger.

The plea comes as hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conduct commonplace public executions. 

Pictures from Friday showed fleeing Afghans entering neighbouring Pakistan after the country re-opened its Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing for people who had been otherwise stranded in recent weeks. 

The crossing is a major gateway between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is reported to be under Taliban control.

Juma Khan, the border town’s deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban.

The decision to open the border was made after the United Nations refugee agency called on Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep crossings open as the crisis intensifies.

‘An inability to seek safety may risk innumerable civilian lives. UNHCR stands ready to help national authorities scale up humanitarian responses as needed,’ a spokesperson for the agency told a briefing in Geneva.

The World Food Programme sees food shortages in Afghanistan as ‘quite dire’ and worsening, a spokesperson added, saying the situation had all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe. 

As Western embassies prepare to send in troops to help evacuate staff, the United Nations said its 320 staff members would remain.

‘We fear the worst is yet to come and the larger tide of hunger is fast approaching… The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe,’ the World Food Programme’s Thomson Phiri told a U.N. briefing.

More than 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since May, 80 percent of them women and children, the U.N. refugee agency’s Shabia Mantoo said.

Many reported extortion by armed groups on the way and having to dodge improvised explosive devices along major roads.

Thousands of people are rushing from rural areas to the capital Kabul and other urban centres in search of shelter, another U.N. official said.

‘They are sleeping in the open, in parks and public spaces,’ Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. ‘A major concern right now is simply finding shelter for them.’

A World Health Organisation official reported a doubling of trauma cases in the last two to three months in the health facilities it supports. 

She also expressed concerns about shortages of medical supplies and said it was training medical staff on mass casualty management. 

Posting to his private Instagram account on Thursday, Sultan Ghani shared pictures of him walking across a runway to a private jet.

‘Moving from one crisis to the other as elegantly as I can’ his caption read, sparking outrage on social media.

‘While Afghanistan is burning & the ppl are suffering across the country because of his uncle’s disastrous leadership, posts these photos on his Instagram account,’ one user wrote on Twitter while sharing the images of the Sultan and his plane. 

The Taliban insurgency seized Lashkar Gah – the capital of the southern province of Helmand – on Friday, and two afghan lawmakers officials had surrendered the capital of Uruzgan province to the rapidly advancing Taliban.

On Thursday, the group took of Kandahar and Herat, marking the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long blitz

‘The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,’ provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi said of Kandahar via telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran.

‘Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.’

Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul. 

According to recent UN data, 400,000 people have fled their homes inside Afghanistan since the start of the year, with almost 300,000 of those fleeing since May as fighting between the government and Taliban stepped up.

The vast majority of those are still inside the country, the UN says, but with Islamist fighters making rapid gains in almost every region and government forces in retreat, many are looking to leave the country.  

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The government has now effectively lost control of most of Afghanistan, following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has also stunned Kabul’s American backers. 

Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani’s administration now controls just three major cities – including Kabil – but is unlikely to have the logistical manpower left to marshal a successful defence of the capital without foreign aid.

The head of the council in the western province of Ghor later on Friday said the city of Feroz Koh had also fallen to the insurgents, after two Afghan lawmakers said officials surrendered Tirin Ko – the capital of Uruzgan province.

The Defence Secretary admitted UK troops could return to Afghanistan in future, warning ‘al Qaida will probably come back’ and it could again become a major breeding ground for Islamic extremist terrorists.

This morning he laid into the Republican former US leader Donald Trump, saying his ‘rotten’  February 2020 peace agreement with the Islamists was a ‘mistake’.

The UK is sending 600 soldiers and the US 3,000 to evacuate their people in scenes likened to the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. 

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a veteran of the conflict, said ‘the decision to withdraw is like a rug pulled from under the feet of our partners’.

‘A hasty exit is not a sign of success. Needing reinforcements to keep the door open as you leave is a sure sign of failure,’ he added.

Mr Wallace told Sky this morning: ‘I was public about it that at the time of the Trump deal – with obviously the Taliban – I felt that that was a mistake to have done it that way, that we will all as an international community pay the consequences of that, but when the United States as the framework nation took that decision, the way we were all configured, the way we had gone in meant that we had to leave as well.’

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether the UK could return for future military operations if al Qaida or other terrorist organisations rise in Afghanistan, he added: ‘If you want to cut out the short-term threat globally, wherever Britain has a threat to her interests and her people, we have a global counter-terrorism capability…

‘It is obviously not as perfect as being based in a country as we have been in Afghanistan but we retain military capability to deal with a threat where we face it or we have to deal with it under international law.

‘If there is an imminent threat emanating anywhere in the world. Britain, the United States, France, other countries have a capability to deal with that.’

He added: ‘I will always deploy either force or disruptive capabilities alongside other parts of the British state – or indeed a coalition – to protect our national security and our interests. We will always do that, we will reserve the right to do it, and that is a global capability.’ 

He said that Afghanistan’s second biggest city of Kandahar and the town of Lashkar Gah was ‘pretty much now in the hands of the Taliban.’ The latter fell after two weeks of heavy fighting, according to a police official on Friday.

Former international development minister Rory Stewart called the troop withdrawal ‘a total betrayal by the US and by the UK’ that risked triggering a civil war between rival warlords currently defending against the Taliban.

Johnny Mercer, a Conservative MP and former veterans minister who served in Afghanistan, called the withdrawal ‘a disgrace’.

‘I think it’s humiliating for the UK military, for the families who lost individuals over there but above all it’s a huge tragedy for the people of Afghanistan, who’ve been through so much over so many years,’ he told Times Radio.

‘We’ve chosen this defeat and it’s shameful.’ 

NATO will hold an urgent meeting Friday on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan after the US said it was sending troops to evacuate its nationals, diplomatic and official sources told AFP.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will lead discussions with envoys from the 30 allies in the meeting starting at 1300 GMT, with one source saying it would focus on evacuation planning from Afghanistan.

‘It is about determining who does what, when, and how, and what support is given for this,’ the source said.

Two Afghan lawmakers said on Friday that officials have surrendered the capital of Uruzgan province – Tirin Kot – to the rapidly advancing Taliban. The news came shortly after an Afghan official said the Taliban have captured Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand.

The loss of Helmand’s provincial capital comes after years of toil and blood spill by American, British and allied NATO forces. Estimates suggest those countries lost some 800 troops over the decades-long war there.

The Taliban were also closer to taking Logar province, at the gates of Kabul, with a Taliban spokesman saying insurgents had captured the police headquarters and city jail in the capital, Pul-e-Alam.

Earlier Friday, officials and residents in Kandahar told AFP that government forces had withdrawn en masse to a military facility outside the southern city.

‘Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square,’ a Taliban spokesman tweeted, referring to a city landmark. 

Former defence minister and Afghanistan veteran Johnny Mercer contested the idea that the UK cannot act alone in the central Asian country. The Conservative MP said the current situation was 'deeply humiliating'

Former defence minister and Afghanistan veteran Johnny Mercer contested the idea that the UK cannot act alone in the central Asian country. The Conservative MP said the current situation was 'deeply humiliating'

Former defence minister and Afghanistan veteran Johnny Mercer contested the idea that the UK cannot act alone in the central Asian country. The Conservative MP said the current situation was ‘deeply humiliating’

Tobias Ellwood

Tobias Ellwood

Tom Tugendhat

Tom Tugendhat

Conservative Tobias Ellwood (left) said on Twitter: ‘What would Churchill say? This is NOT our finest hour. What happened to GLOBAL BRITAIN and AMERICA IS BACK?’ And fellow Tory Tom Tugendhat (right), a veteran of the conflict, said ‘the decision to withdraw is like a rug pulled from under the feet of our partners’.

Taliban fighters stand over a damaged police vehicle as one waves a white flag along the roadside in Kandahar

Taliban fighters stand over a damaged police vehicle as one waves a white flag along the roadside in Kandahar

Taliban fighters stand over a damaged police vehicle as one waves a white flag along the roadside in Kandahar

Pictured: Afghan military vehicles are parked inside a base in Kandahar city during fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan

Pictured: Afghan military vehicles are parked inside a base in Kandahar city during fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan

Pictured: Afghan military vehicles are parked inside a base in Kandahar city during fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan

Pictured: Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul on Thursday

Pictured: Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul on Thursday

Pictured: Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul on Thursday

The Taliban has now seized around two thirds of the country from the government in a little over three months








Timeline of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals falling to the Taliban 

Aug. 6 – ZARANJ – The Taliban take over the city in Nimroz province in the south, the first provincial capital to fall to the insurgents since they stepped up attacks on Afghan forces in early May.

Aug. 7 – SHEBERGHAN – The Taliban declare they have captured the entire northern province of Jawzjan, including its capital Sheberghan. Heavy fighting is reported in the city, and government buildings are taken over by the insurgents. Afghan security forces say they are still fighting there.

Aug. 8 – SAR-E-PUL – The insurgents take control of Sar-e-Pul, capital of the northern province of the same name. It is the first of three provincial centres to fall on the same day.

Aug. 8 – KUNDUZ – Taliban fighters seize control of the northern city of 270,000 people, regarded as a strategic prize as it lies at the gateway to mineral-rich northern provinces and Central Asia. Government forces say they are resisting the insurgents from an army base and the airport.

Aug. 8 – TALOQAN – The capital of Takhar province, also in the north, falls to the Taliban in the evening. They free prisoners and force government officials to flee.

Aug. 9 – AYBAK – The capital of the northern province of Samangan is overrun by Taliban fighters.

Aug. 10 – PUL-E-KHUMRI – The capital of the central province of Baghlan falls to the Taliban, according to residents.

Aug. 11 – FAIZABAD – The capital of the northeastern province of Badakhshan is under Taliban control, a provincial council member says.

Aug. 12 – GHAZNI – The insurgents take over the city, capital of the province of the same name, a senior security officer says.

Aug 12 – FIRUS KOH – The capital of Ghor province, was handed over to the Taliban on Thursday night without a fight, security officials said.

AUG 12 – QALA-E-NAW – The Taliban have captured the capital of the northwestern province of Badghis, a security official and the Taliban said.

Aug 12 – KANDAHAR – The Taliban have captured Afghanistan’s second biggest city of Kandahar, government officials and the Taliban said.

Aug 13 – LASHKAR GAH – The Taliban have captured the capital of the southern province of Helmand, police said.

Aug 13 – HERAT – Capital of Herat province in the west was under Taliban control after days of clashes, a provincial council member said.

Aug 13 – POL-E ALAM –  Taliban captured provincial capital of Logar, 30 miles south of Kabul

Provincial capitals being contested as of Aug. 13: 

FARAH – Capital of the western province of Farah.

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Hours later, the Taliban said they had also taken control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighbouring Helmand province.

A security source confirmed the fall of the city, telling AFP that the Afghan military and government officials had evacuated Lashkar Gah after striking a local ceasefire deal with the militants.

The government has now effectively lost control of most of the country, following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has also stunned Kabul’s American backers.

The government now controls just three major cities, and is unlikely to have the logistical manpower left to marshal a successful defence of the capital.

The Taliban are moving rapidly towards Kabul with reports suggesting their fighters are making progress on the northern and southern flanks of the capital.

Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul.

The insurgents on Friday held more than a dozen provincial capitals in recent days and now control more than two-thirds of the country just weeks before the U.S. plans to withdraw its last troops. 

Fazel Haq Ehsan, chief of the provincial council in western Ghor province, said on Friday that the Taliban had entered Feroz Koh, the provincial capital, and there was fighting inside the city.

The Taliban meanwhile claims to have captured Qala-e Naw, capital of the western Badghis province. There was no official confirmation.

The Taliban are also on the move in Logar province, 50 miles south of Kabul, where they claim to have seized the police headquarters in the provincial capital of Puli-e Alim as well as a nearby prison. 

Speaking to the Today Programme, a spokesperson for the Taliban blamed the Afghanistan government for the conflict, saying Taliban wanted a peaceful settlement, and that an agreement had been broken by the Kabul administration.

‘We had proposed a three-months reduction in violence about four months ago, but it was rejected by the same Kabul administration,’ the spokesperson said on Friday morning.

Suhail Shaheen – based in Doha – also called the claims of the Taliban’s brutal regime ‘propaganda’ against the group when confronted with reports about the group’s treatment of women and citizens who don’t adhere to their extremist rules.

The United Nations refugee agency called on Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep borders open as Taliban insurgent advances heightened the country’s crisis.

‘An inability to seek safety may risk innumerable civilian lives. UNHCR stands ready to help national authorities scale up humanitarian responses as needed,’ a spokesperson for the agency told a briefing in Geneva.

The World Food Programme sees food shortages in Afghanistan as ‘quite dire’ and worsening, a spokesperson added, saying the situation had all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe. 

The U.N.’s statement came after Pakistan re-opened its Chaman border crossing for people who had been stranded in recent weeks. Juma Khan, the Pakistan border town’s deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban.  

Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats are still meeting, as the US, European and Asian nations warned that any government established by force would be rejected. 

The Defence Secretary admitted UK troops could return to Afghanistan after the end of the 20-year occupation, warning 'al Qaida will probably come back' and it could again become a major breeding ground for Islamic extremist terrorists.

The Defence Secretary admitted UK troops could return to Afghanistan after the end of the 20-year occupation, warning 'al Qaida will probably come back' and it could again become a major breeding ground for Islamic extremist terrorists.

This morning he laid into the Republican former US leader, saying his February 2020 peace agreement with the Islamists was a 'mistake', as they made major advances following the departure of most allied forces.

This morning he laid into the Republican former US leader, saying his February 2020 peace agreement with the Islamists was a 'mistake', as they made major advances following the departure of most allied forces.

The UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace admitted UK troops could return to Afghanistan after the end of the 20-year occupation, warning ‘al Qaida will probably come back’ and it could again become a major breeding ground for Islamic extremist terrorists. This morning he laid into the Republican former US leader, saying his February 2020 peace agreement with the Islamists was a ‘mistake’, as they made major advances following the departure of most allied forces

‘We demand an immediate end to attacks against cities, urge a political settlement, and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state,’ said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to the talks. 

Meanwhile, Taliban insurgents detained veteran militia commander Mohammad Ismail Khan on Friday after they seized the western city of Herat, a provincial council member said.

Khan, who has been leading fighters against the Taliban in recent weeks, was handed over to the insurgents along with the provincial governor and security officials under a pact, provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi told Reuters.

‘The Taliban agreed that they will not pose any threat or harm to the government officials who surrendered,’ Hashimi said.

Khan is one of Afghanistan’s most prominent warlords. Known as the Lion of Herat, he battled Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and was a key member of the Northern Alliance whose U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that Khan had been detained.   

Pictured: Taliban militants gather around the main square after taking control of Kandahar on Friday

Pictured: Taliban militants gather around the main square after taking control of Kandahar on Friday

Pictured: Taliban militants gather around the main square after taking control of Kandahar on Friday

Pictured: Pakistani soldiers stand guard while stranded people walk towards the Afghan side at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan on Friday

Pictured: Pakistani soldiers stand guard while stranded people walk towards the Afghan side at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan on Friday

Pictured: Pakistani soldiers stand guard while stranded people walk towards the Afghan side at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan on Friday

Stranded people cross the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Chaman, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. Pakistan opened its Chaman border crossing for people who had been stranded in recent weeks. Juma Khan, the Pakistan border town's deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban

Stranded people cross the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Chaman, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. Pakistan opened its Chaman border crossing for people who had been stranded in recent weeks. Juma Khan, the Pakistan border town's deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban

Stranded people cross the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Chaman, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. Pakistan opened its Chaman border crossing for people who had been stranded in recent weeks. Juma Khan, the Pakistan border town’s deputy commissioner, said the crossing was reopened following talks with the Taliban

Pictured: Stranded people sit around a coffin of their relative, loaded in a pickup truck moving towards the Afghan side at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan, on Friday

Pictured: Stranded people sit around a coffin of their relative, loaded in a pickup truck moving towards the Afghan side at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan, on Friday

Pictured: Stranded people sit around a coffin of their relative, loaded in a pickup truck moving towards the Afghan side at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan, on Friday

One clip purportedly showed prisoners - released by the Taliban - walking free down a dirt road, while another showed Taliban forces raising the group's flag outside what was claimed to be a government building in Lashkar Gah (pictured)

One clip purportedly showed prisoners - released by the Taliban - walking free down a dirt road, while another showed Taliban forces raising the group's flag outside what was claimed to be a government building in Lashkar Gah (pictured)

One clip purportedly showed prisoners – released by the Taliban – walking free down a dirt road, while another showed Taliban forces raising the group’s flag outside what was claimed to be a government building in Lashkar Gah (pictured)

Pictured: Video from August 13 purportedly showed freed prisoners walking down the street after the Taliban reportedly broke open a prison in Qalat, the capital city of Zabul

Pictured: Video from August 13 purportedly showed freed prisoners walking down the street after the Taliban reportedly broke open a prison in Qalat, the capital city of Zabul

Pictured: Video from August 13 purportedly showed freed prisoners walking down the street after the Taliban reportedly broke open a prison in Qalat, the capital city of Zabul

Picutred: Taliban fighters posing with a man believed to be famous warlord Ismail Khan, who is the Governor of Herat. He has been kept in his Herat residence under heavily armed Taliban guards

Picutred: Taliban fighters posing with a man believed to be famous warlord Ismail Khan, who is the Governor of Herat. He has been kept in his Herat residence under heavily armed Taliban guards

Picutred: Taliban fighters posing with a man believed to be famous warlord Ismail Khan, who is the Governor of Herat. He has been kept in his Herat residence under heavily armed Taliban guards

Taliban fighters drive an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle through a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021

Taliban fighters drive an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle through a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021

Taliban fighters drive an Afghan National Army (ANA) vehicle through a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021

Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021

Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021

Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar on August 13, 2021

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar on August 13, 2021

Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Kandahar on August 13, 2021

Stranded Afghan nationals stand in queues as they wait for the reopening of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on August 13, 2021

Stranded Afghan nationals stand in queues as they wait for the reopening of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on August 13, 2021

Stranded Afghan nationals stand in queues as they wait for the reopening of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on August 13, 2021

Kandahar and Herat fell on Thursday – further squeezing the country’s embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.

The seizure of the two cities marks the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long blitz. 

While Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation. 

Some 4,000 British nationals are estimated to still be in Afghanistan, according to the Foreign Office. The Sun reported that only a skeleton staff, including ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow, will remain in Kabul.

Troops will aim to secure the city’s airport, where both the UK and US embassy will be relocated to, the paper reported. 

Former defence minister Johnny Mercer – who also served in Afghanistan – said the repercussions from the situation in Afghanistan would be ‘absolutely huge’.

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘Afghanistan is a kind of melting point of tribal and ethnic groups, it is one of the most vulnerable points in the world that the evil people that we have to defend ourselves against will go to to set up some sort of base to terrorise the local population, to build up a support base.

‘We will feel the effects of that in the UK as we did before, whether it is through a refugee crisis, whether it is through the security situation.

‘The repercussions of this are absolutely huge and I am just surprised that we haven’t had more from the Prime Minister and others about the UK’s role in this.’

Government and senior armed forces officials flew by helicopter out of the government’s last stronghold in the city at about midnight on Thursday ahead of the capture, said the official, who declined to be identified.

‘About 200 ANDSF members, who were left in the governor’s compound, with the intervention of elders, surrendered to the Taliban,’ said the official, referring to members of the national defence and security forces and tribal elders.  

The seizure of Herat – a strategic provincial capital near Kabul – marked the biggest prize yet for the Taliban, which has taken 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a weeklong blitz.  

Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city – which dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great – and seized government buildings. 

Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents’ control. 

An AFP correspondent filmed the Taliban flag flying over the police HQ in Herat, while the insurgents tweeted ‘the enemy fled… Dozens of military vehicles, weapons and ammunition fell into the hands of the Mujahideen’. 

‘Right until this afternoon the situation in the city was normal,’ Herat resident Masoom Jan told AFP.

‘Late afternoon everything changed. They (the Taliban) entered the city in rush. They raised their flags in every corner of the city. 

Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines.

Afghan lawmaker Semin Barekzai also acknowledged the city’s fall to the Taliban, saying that some officials there had escaped. 

Footage posted online showed Taliban fighters rampaging through Herat on Thursday

Footage posted online showed Taliban fighters rampaging through Herat on Thursday

Footage posted online showed Taliban fighters rampaging through Herat on Thursday

Footage posted online showed Taliban fighters rampaging through Herat on Thursday

Footage posted online showed heavily armed Taliban fighters rampaging through Herat on Thursday after they seized the strategically important third-biggest city in Afghanistan

The Taliban has captured Afghanistan's third biggest city, Herat, further squeezing the country's embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there. Pictured: Taliban fighters pose for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

The Taliban has captured Afghanistan's third biggest city, Herat, further squeezing the country's embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there. Pictured: Taliban fighters pose for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

The Taliban has captured Afghanistan’s third biggest city, Herat, further squeezing the country’s embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there. Pictured: Taliban fighters pose for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents' control. Pictured: A Taliban fighter poses for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents' control. Pictured: A Taliban fighter poses for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents’ control. Pictured: A Taliban fighter poses for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city's defensive lines. Pictured: A Taliban fighter poses for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city's defensive lines. Pictured: A Taliban fighter poses for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city’s defensive lines. Pictured: A Taliban fighter poses for a photo in Ghazni on Thursday

News of the capture of Herat came as the United States accused the group of executing Afghan government troops who had surrendered. A Taliban flag is seen flying in a square in the city of Ghazni on Thursday

News of the capture of Herat came as the United States accused the group of executing Afghan government troops who had surrendered. A Taliban flag is seen flying in a square in the city of Ghazni on Thursday

News of the capture of Herat came as the United States accused the group of executing Afghan government troops who had surrendered. A Taliban flag is seen flying in a square in the city of Ghazni on Thursday

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Taliban political affairs chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Doha, Qatar, last September

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Taliban political affairs chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Doha, Qatar, last September

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the Taliban political affairs chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Doha, Qatar, last September

The Taliban has now seized around two thirds of the country from the government in a little over three months.

News of the capture of Herat came as the United States accused the group of executing Afghan government troops who had surrendered.  

‘We’re hearing additional reports of Taliban executions of surrendering Afghan troops,’ the US embassy in Kabul tweeted on Thursday. ‘Deeply disturbing & could constitute war crimes.’

It was not immediately clear where the new reports had come from. Video taken in Faryab province last month did appear to show Taliban fighters massacring 22 Afghan commandos after they had surrendered, including the son of a prominent general.

Hundreds of government troops have surrendered to the Taliban since fighting escalated in May with the withdrawal of US troops – some without firing a shot, others after being cut off and surrounded with little or no chance of reinforcement or resupply from the government in Kabul. 

In an attempt to stop the bloodletting, Afghan diplomats in Qatar said they had approached the Taliban with a deal on Thursday that would see the group included in a national unity government in return for halting the fighting.

But such talks have been stalled for years over ‘unreasonable Taliban demands to turn the country into an Islamic emirate – and there is little reason to believe they will have softened that stance after their battlefield triumphs. 

In a sign of the rapidly worsening situation, the US on Thursday told all of its citizens to leave the country as soon as possible by any commercial means. It comes a week after the UK gave its citizens the same advice, and after India pulled its diplomatic staff out. 

On Thursday, the US said it would send troops to assist with the evacuation of civilians. 

‘We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,’ US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, while noting the embassy would remain open.

Price added the US would also start sending in daily flights to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the Americans and are fearful for their lives due to the Taliban’s sweeping offensive across Afghanistan.

An IED explosion in Lashkar Gah

An IED explosion in Lashkar Gah

An IED explosion in Lashkar Gah

An IED explosion in Lashkar Gah

Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, appears on the verge of falling to the Islamists after a huge IED explosion destroyed part of the police headquarters on Wednesday and allowed fighters to capture it

Earlier on Thursday, it was announced the jihadists had taken the city of Ghazni, located just 80 miles from Kabul and along the main highway to the south. The Taliban already controls the main highway going north, and is tightening the noose on what could soon become Ghazni’s last stronghold. 

The capture of Ghazni, meanwhile, cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after US and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government. 

Thousands of people have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public amputations, stonings and executions. Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats met throughout the day.

The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months. 

The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban keeps up its momentum.

The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces and renews questions about where the over $830 billion spent by the US Defense Department on fighting, training those troops, and reconstruction efforts went – especially as Taliban fighters ride on American-made Humvees and pickup trucks with M-16s slung across their shoulders.

Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists over the days of fighting, instead issuing video communiques that downplay the Taliban advance.

The jihadists said Lashkar Gah was briefly captured on Wednesday, but later revised to say that fighting is still ongoing and the city is not fully under their control.

A huge IED exploded near the main police headquarters yesterday, sending a plume of smoke into the sky and partially destroying the outer walls – allowing Taliban fighters to stream inside.

Multiple police officers were killed, the jihadists said, but some government troops managed to escape the slaughter and made it to the governor’s office, where they have resumed their fight.

Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand, said she believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded security force members, but she had no casualty breakdown. 

Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it, she said. 

In Kandahar, the Taliban claimed to have captured the city’s prison on Wednesday, freeing ‘hundreds’ of inmates which including some of its own fighters, who have now rejoined the ranks as reinforcements.

The loss of the jail is an ominous sign for government forces defending the city, which has been besieged for weeks by an assault that shows no sign of letting up.   

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country’s special forces, the militias of warlords and American airpower ahead of the US and NATO withdrawal at the end of the month.

He was in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in the country’s traditionally anti-Taliban northern strongholds, on Wednesday in an attempt to rally his men as jihadists approached its outskirts with a major offensive expected soon. 

Fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians who have fled their homes, with thousands of those heading for the safety of government-held Kabul (pictured)

Fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians who have fled their homes, with thousands of those heading for the safety of government-held Kabul (pictured)

Fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians who have fled their homes, with thousands of those heading for the safety of government-held Kabul (pictured)

A woman carries her child through a refugee camp in the Afghan capital of Kabul where thousands are now living after being displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country

A woman carries her child through a refugee camp in the Afghan capital of Kabul where thousands are now living after being displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country

A woman carries her child through a refugee camp in the Afghan capital of Kabul where thousands are now living after being displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country

Children forced to flee their homes due to fighting in Afghanistan drink tea as they sit in a refugee camp in Kabul

Children forced to flee their homes due to fighting in Afghanistan drink tea as they sit in a refugee camp in Kabul

Children forced to flee their homes due to fighting in Afghanistan drink tea as they sit in a refugee camp in Kabul

Young boys rest in a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the country

Young boys rest in a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the country

Young boys rest in a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, after fleeing fighting elsewhere in the country

Makeshift camps are springing up around Kabul to house thousands of refugees who have fled their homes due to fighting

Makeshift camps are springing up around Kabul to house thousands of refugees who have fled their homes due to fighting

Makeshift camps are springing up around Kabul to house thousands of refugees who have fled their homes due to fighting

Families rest in a camp in Kabul after they fled their homes due to fear of the Taliban and sought shelter in government areas

Families rest in a camp in Kabul after they fled their homes due to fear of the Taliban and sought shelter in government areas

Families rest in a camp in Kabul after they fled their homes due to fear of the Taliban and sought shelter in government areas

With the Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the US Air Force is believed to be carrying out some series of strikes to support Afghan forces. 

Aviation tracking data suggested US Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting overnight across the country, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.

It’s unclear what casualties the US bombing campaign has caused. The US Air Force’s Central Command, based in Qatar, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. 

The success of the Taliban offensive also calls into question the outcome of long-stalled peace talks in Qatar aimed at moving Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration as the West hoped. 

Instead, the Taliban appears to be aiming to seize power by force, threatening a split of the country into factional fighting like it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

In Doha, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met with diplomats from China, Pakistan and Russia in an effort to as a group warn the Taliban they could again be considered international pariahs if they continue their offensive, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. 

Khalilzad also plans to meet with Afghan government and Taliban officials as the fighting goes on without a sign of it abating.

The multiple battle fronts have stretched the government’s special operations forces – while regular troops have often fled the battlefield – and the violence has pushed thousands of civilians to seek safety in the capital. 

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