The Taliban’s occupation of a large, heavily guarded city in northern Afghanistan was a major setback for the government, and the organization was approaching the capital less than three weeks before the United States hoped to complete its withdrawal.

The fourth largest city in Afghanistan, Mazar-i-Sharif, fell on Saturday. The Afghan army and two powerful former strongmen pledged to defend the city. The Taliban controlled the entire northern part of Afghanistan and restricted Western-supported governments to the center and east.

The chairman of the Balkh Provincial Assembly, Afzal Hadid, told Reuters that security forces from Mazar-i-Sharif were fleeing to the border.

“The Taliban have taken control of Mazar-i-Sharif,” he said. “All the security forces have left the city of Magyar.” He said that although sporadic conflicts are still taking place nearby, the city seems to have basically fallen without fighting.

Abbas Ebrahimzada, a legislator in Balkh province where the city is located, told the Associated Press that the national army surrendered first, which prompted pro-government militias and other troops to demoralize and give up under the onslaught of the Taliban. Launched earlier on Saturday.

Ibrahim Zada ​​said that Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor had commanded thousands of fighters and they had fled The province’s whereabouts are unknown.

In recent days, the Taliban have made significant progress, including the occupation of Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second and third largest cities. Since August 6, it has now controlled approximately 22 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, allowing the Western-backed government to own a small number of provinces in the central and eastern regions and the capital, Kabul.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday Increase the number of U.S. troops He was sent to Afghanistan to help evacuate embassy personnel and Afghan civilians, and warned the Taliban heading to Kabul not to hinder the mission.

After consulting with his national security team, Biden stated that “approximately 5,000” American soldiers will now be deployed — an increase from 3,000 — to organize the evacuation and mission that ends after the United States has worked on the ground for 20 years.

On Saturday, the Taliban occupied all areas in Logar province, south of Kabul, and detained local officials, said Hoda Ahmadi, the province’s legislator. She said the Taliban had reached the Char Asyab district, only 11 kilometers (7 miles) south of the capital.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Fly to Mazar-i-Sharif The city’s fortifications were called on Wednesday and met with several militia commanders including Dostum and Noor.

On Saturday, Ghani gave a televised speech, which was his first public appearance since the recent Taliban victory. He promised not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the United States overthrew the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

The United States continued to hold peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week. The international community warned that it would avoid the Taliban government brought by force. But the organization seems not interested in making concessions because it has won on the battlefield.

Ghani said: “We have begun consultations within the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community, and our international allies.”

A few hours later, his troops suffered one of the biggest setbacks since the beginning of the Taliban offensive.

Al Jazeera reporter Rob McBride reported from Kabul that he said it was “a huge shock” that the city fell so quickly.

“The resistance really broke down quickly. Mazar-i-Sharif was almost seen as a fortress that ignored the Taliban-it was tightly defended and it lasted for several days of fighting,” he said.

However, McBride said that with the collapse of other provincial centers in the north, it has become very isolated.

“In the vast land of northern Afghanistan, Mazar-i-Sharif is really alone. It is difficult to maintain supplies. Food and ammunition and everything else will be difficult. What may have affected [the gov’t forces’] Determined,” he said.

‘There is no place for women’

Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, and many feared returning to the oppressive Taliban. The organization had previously ruled Afghanistan under strict Islamic laws, which prohibited women from working or going to school and were not allowed to leave their homes without the company of their male relatives.

Salima Mazari, one of the country’s few female district mayors, expressed concerns about the Taliban’s takeover in an interview with the Associated Press earlier on Saturday.

“There will be no place for women,” said Mazari, who manages an area of ​​36,000 people near the northern city. “In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, women no longer exist there, even in the cities. They are all locked up at home.”

According to Khalid Asad, a member of the province, the Taliban also occupied Paktika, the capital that borders Pakistan. He said fighting broke out in Sharanah earlier on Saturday, but it ended after local elders intervened in negotiations to withdraw troops.

Said Husan Gedez, a legislator from neighboring Paktia Province, said that the Taliban had occupied most of the local capital, Gadez, but fighting with government forces was still going on. The Taliban said it controlled the city.

The Taliban also control Maimana, the capital of the northern province of Faryab, said the province’s legislator Fazia Raufi. She said the city had been under siege for a month, and the security forces finally surrendered on Saturday.

In recent days, Afghans have been pouring into Kabul’s international airport, eager to fly out, even though more American troops have arrived to help partially evacuate the American embassy.

“The panic in Kabul is increasing,” Al Jazeera’s Charlotte Bellis said. “Most foreigners are evacuating. Among Afghans, most want to leave, but their families are also from provinces controlled by the Taliban.

“Most importantly, prices have skyrocketed. Fuel prices have doubled in the past three months, which has also pushed up food prices. There was also a bank run on Saturday.”

Soon after the September 11 attack, the United States invaded, which was planned and implemented by Al Qaeda under the aegis of the Taliban. After the rapid overthrow of the Taliban, the United States turned to nation-building, hoping to build a modern Afghan nation after decades of war and turmoil.

Earlier this year, President Biden announced a Withdrawal schedule At the end of August, all American troops pledged to end the longest war in the United States. His predecessor, Donald Trump, has reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for the withdrawal of American troops.

Biden’s statement started the latest offensive. The Taliban, which has long controlled most of the rural areas of Afghanistan, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other critical infrastructure.

“The security situation in the city is deteriorating,” Kawa Basharat, a resident of Mazar-i-Sharif, said hours before the city fell. “I want peace and stability; fighting should stop.”

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