The Taliban captured three more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive Sunday in their quest to capitalize on the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces and maintain a campaign against the Afghan government.
The cities of Kunduz, Sar-e-Pul and Taloqan fell within hours, news agencies in the country reported.
“After some fierce fighting, the mujahedeen, with the grace of God, captured the capital of Kunduz,” the Taliban said, according to Agence France-Presse.
Taliban troops and government forces were battling to control Lashkar Gah, the capital of the strategically vital Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
The capture of Kunduz was a bitter blow for Kabul and the exhausted Afghan National Army forces it controls. It is the capital of a province with the same name and a vital commercial city. With a population of about 375,000, Kunduz is a strategic thoroughfare.
Kunduz sits on Afghanistan‘s main northside highway, which links Kabul and Tajikstan and the east-west highway connecting to Mazar-e-Sharif and Taloqan.
“All security forces fled to the airport, and the situation is critical,” Sayed Jawad Hussaini, a deputy police chief in Kunduz city, told The New York Times.
The Taliban managed to seize Kunduz in 2015 but were pushed back by Afghan forces with the assistance of U.S. airstrikes.
Taliban fighters seized control of the provincial capital of Zaranj on Friday after overrunning Afghan National Army troops. Hours earlier, they assassinated the government’s top media officer in Kabul.
“This is the beginning, and see how other provinces fall in our hands very soon,” a Taliban commander told the Reuters news agency.
Local media reports in Afghanistan said 12 civilians, including women and children, were killed late Saturday in a Taliban-linked explosion in the Syed Karam district of Paktia province.
Insurgents late Saturday fired mortars at the home of the governor of Kandahar and at the local airport. The attacks did not cause any casualties, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
Although the American military footprint in Afghanistan has shrunk in recent weeks, the U.S. said it would continue to support government officials, primarily with financial assistance.
U.S. airstrikes are still an option. The United Kingdom’s Sunday Times reported that the U.S. had used B-52 bombers in recent days to attack Taliban forces heading to the major cities.
Northern Afghanistan has long been considered an anti-Taliban stronghold. It remains home to several militias that fought their control in the 1990s.
The full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is scheduled to be complete by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.