Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, said he was in urgent talks with local leaders and international partners as Taliban rebels pushed closer to Kabul, capturing a town south of the capital that is one of the gateways to the city.
“As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence and displacement of my people,” Ghani said in a brief televised address, as the US and other countries rushed in troops to help evacuate their embassies.
Ghani gave no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign for any talks on a ceasefire and a political settlement, saying “re-integration of the security and defence forces is our priority, and serious measures are being taken in this regard”.
He spoke soon after the insurgents took Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province, 40 miles south of Kabul, according to a local provincial council member.
The Taliban did not face much resistance, the provincial council member said on condition of anonymity.
The gain of the city, a key staging post for a potential assault on Kabul, comes a day after the insurgents took the country’s second- and third-biggest cities.
US troops have begun flying in to Kabul to help in the evacuation of embassy personnel and other civilians, a US official said.
The Pentagon has said two battalions of Marines and one infantry battalion will arrive in Kabul by Sunday evening, involving about 3,000 troops.
“They have arrived, their arrival will continue till tomorrow,” the official said.
An infantry brigade combat team will also move out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Kuwait to act as a quick reaction force for security in Kabul if needed, the Pentagon said.
Britain and several other western nations are also sending troops, as resistance from Afghan government forces crumbles and fears grow that an assault on Kabul could be just days away.
An Afghan government official confirmed on Friday that Kandahar, the economic hub of the south, was under Taliban control as US-led international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
Herat in the west, near the border with Iran, also fell to the hardline Islamist group.
Kandahar’s loss was a heavy blow to the government. It is the heartland of the Taliban and is close to the town of Spin Boldak, one of the two main entry points into Pakistan and a major source of tax revenues.
A US defence official said before the fall of Pul-e-Alam that there was concern that the Taliban – ousted from power in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks on the US – could make a move on Kabul within days.
“Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment, but clearly … if you just look at what the Taliban has been doing, you can see that they are trying to isolate Kabul,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Some embassies have begun to burn sensitive material ahead of evacuating, diplomats said.
The US embassy in the Afghan capital informed staff that burn bins and an incinerator were available to destroy material including papers and electronic devices to “reduce the amount of sensitive material on the property”, according to an advisory seen by Reuters.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that “Afghanistan is spinning out of control” and urged all parties to do more to protect civilians.
“This is the moment to halt the offensive. This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war, or the isolation of Afghanistan,” Guterres told reporters in New York.
Many people in the capital were stocking up on rice and other food as well as first aid, residents said. Visa applications at embassies were running in the tens of thousands, officials said.
The explosion in fighting has raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of the country’s gains in human rights.
Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes this year, 250,000 of them since May, a UN official said.
The speed of the Taliban’s gains has led to recriminations over the US withdrawal, which was negotiated last year under the administration of President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Biden said this week he did not regret his decision to follow through with the withdrawal. He noted Washington has spent more than $1tn and lost thousands of troops over two decades, and called on Afghanistan’s army and leaders to step up.
Opinion polls showed most Americans back Biden’s decision, but Republicans criticised the Democratic president’s handling of the US withdrawal.