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Taliban hours away from Afghan capital, US envoys evacuating

In picture above: Taliban militants waving a Taliban flag on the back of a pickup truck drive past a crowded street at Pashtunistan Square area in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in this still image taken from social media video uploaded on August 15, 2021. Social media website/via REUTERS

The Taliban military forces are within a shouting distance of the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, after the key eastern Afghanistan city of Jalabad fell without a fight on Sunday.

The crumbling Afghan government is now left with a little more than the capital Kabul.

But in a message posted on its Twitter account, the Office of the President of Afghanistan sought to reassure residents, despite reports of Taliban starting to enter the capital.

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metro-admin2 | Lagos Metropolitan newspaper Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and acting defence minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi visit military corps in Kabul, Afghanistan August 14, 2021. Afghan Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

“There have been sporadic shootings in Kabul, Kabul has not been attacked, the country’s security and defense forces are working together with international partners to ensure the security of the city, the situation is under control,” the post said.

The United States, whose troops had been on ground for 20 years but are now withdrawing, have started evacuating its diplomats and was sending more troops to help secure Kabul airport and the embassy after the Taliban’s lightning advances brought the Islamist group to the door of the capital in a matter of days.

But just last week, a U.S. intelligence estimate said Kabul could hold out for at least three months.

“We have a small batch of people leaving now as we speak, a majority of the staff are ready to leave,” a U.S. official told Reuters on Sunday. “The embassy continues to function.”

The fall of Jalalabad gives the insurgents control of a road leading to the Pakistan city of Peshawar, one of the main highways into landlocked Afghanistan.

It followed the Taliban’s seizure of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif late on Saturday, also with little fighting.

“There are no clashes taking place right now in Jalalabad because the governor has surrendered to the Taliban,” a Jalalabad-based Afghan official told Reuters. “Allowing passage to the Taliban was the only way to save civilian lives.”

A second security official in the city said the Taliban had agreed to give safe passage to government officials and security forces while they leave Jalalabad. The decision to surrender was taken to avoid “casualties and destruction”, the official said.

After U.S.-led forces withdrew the bulk of the their remaining troops in the last month, the Taliban campaign accelerated as the Afghan military’s defences appeared to collapse.

President Joe Biden on Saturday authorised the deployment of 5,000 U.S. troops to help evacuate citizens and ensure an “orderly and safe” drawdown of military personnel. A U.S. defence official said that included 1,000 newly approved troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.

Taliban fighters entered Mazar-i-Sharif virtually unopposed as security forces escaped up the highway to Uzbekistan, about 80 km (50 miles) to the north, provincial officials said. Unverified video on social media showed Afghan army vehicles and men in uniforms crowding the iron bridge between the Afghan town of Hairatan and Uzbekistan.

Two influential militia leaders supporting the government – Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum – also fled. Noor said on social media that the Taliban had been handed control of Balkh province, where Mazar-i-Sharif is located, due to a “conspiracy.”

(with agency reports)

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