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Videos: Big northern Afghan hub said to fall to Taliban as insurgents draw close to Kabul

The Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. (Lt.j.g. Amy Forsythe/ISAF Regional Command)

Taliban fighters on Saturday seized the Afghan government’s last northern stronghold, the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, according to news reports and provincial officials, dealing what would be the latest staggering blow to the country’s beleaguered government.

At the same time, insurgents tightened a near-encirclement of Afghanistan’s capital, pushing to within a few dozen miles of Kabul as more American troops flew in to help with an airlift of U.S. Embassy personnel.

Meanwhile, an already dire humanitarian crisis deepened as tens of thousands of frightened refugees from cities and the countryside across Afghanistan thronged Kabul, fearing that the takeover of their communities meant a reimposition of harsh Taliban rule.

President Ashraf Ghani, in his first televised address since the Taliban seized much of the country in a lightning offensive spanning the last nine days, appeared almost disconnected from the drumbeat of disastrous news. He cited “achievements” of the past two decades, coinciding with the U.S. military presence, and appealed that they not go to waste.

The president, who has so far rebuffed pressure to resign, offered no concrete steps to counter Afghanistan’s rapid unraveling, other than saying that unspecified “serious measures” were being taken.

“My focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people,” Ghani said in brief prerecorded remarks. He said he was holding consultations with Afghan elders, political figures and international representatives.

But only hours after Ghani spoke, insurgents were said to have claimed a huge new prize: control of the country’s fourth largest city. The reported fall of Mazar-i-Sharif was particularly significant, not only because of its strategic position as the main hub of the country’s north, but because it was defended by a pair of powerful ex-warlords whose fighters — unlike the Afghan security forces in most locales — had appeared prepared to offer staunch resistance.

Afghanistan’s warlord figures, however, are also known to cut deals and stage strategic retreats when their own survival is at stake. Reports circulated that the two prominent Taliban foes with substantial militias loyal to them — Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum — took refuge in neighboring Uzbekistan. Only days earlier, Ghani had flown to Mazar to try to win pledges they would fight to keep the city from falling.

Earlier Saturday, pressing ahead with an onslaught that has left more than half of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in their hands, Taliban fighters overran a gateway town south of Kabul on Saturday, according to news agency reports citing local officials. Also Saturday, the province of Paktika, bordering Pakistan, was said to be in Taliban hands.

The group’s stunning territorial gains of recent days — together with the seizure of millions of dollars of U.S.-bankrolled military equipment — marked a high-water point in the Taliban drive to return to power after being toppled in a U.S.-led invasion following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Islamist group, which had harbored the al-Qaida extremists who launched the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., imposed brutal fundamentalist rule for five years before losing power.

In what has become a pattern repeated across Afghanistan’s north, south and west, Taliban fighters were reported to have encountered little resistance from Afghan security forces when they took control of Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar province, only 40 miles from Kabul.

As the week drew to a close, the Taliban movement cemented its grip on a string of cities including Kandahar, the country’s second-largest metropolis and the main hub of Afghanistan’s south. The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, if borne out, leaves the country’s three biggest cities after Kabul in the insurgents’ control.

With the wholesale crumbling of Afghan forces the United States spent billions of dollars equipping and training, the only major city still in government hands besides Kabul was Jalalabad in the east.

The insurgents have been methodically cutting transport links between Kabul and other major cities, taking aim Saturday at Maidan Shahr, on the main highway connecting the national capital and Kandahar, according to news agencies.

The U.S. forces dispatched to help secure diplomatic personnel and Afghan support staff — two Marine battalions and an infantry battalion — were to be in place by Sunday evening, Defense Department officials said. In all, about 3,000 troops will assist with the operation, and so far, the White House has said they will be gone by Aug. 31, the date set for formalizing the overall American withdrawal.

Although it wasn’t clear whether the Taliban would move swiftly to try to take Kabul, or simply isolate it while weighing the next step, more Western countries are preparing to pull up diplomatic stakes. U.S. diplomats, along with those of other countries, were destroying sensitive documents in preparation for possible departure.

But the pullback comes as tens of thousands of Afghans are frantically pleading for documentation to help them leave the country.

The internally displaced — whose ranks have grown by 250,000 just since May, according to the United Nations — are camped out in Kabul parks and squares, having made the trek from the provinces to seek safety in Kabul. Food hoarding is taking hold across the city, and many of those who fled the Taliban’s advance have nothing but clothes and perhaps some simple bedding, humanitarian groups said.

Speaking in New York on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Afghanistan was “spinning out of control” and called for urgent talks to stem the growing chaos.

“This is the moment to start serious negotiation,” he said. “This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war, or the isolation of Afghanistan.”

The threat of international pariahdom is one of the few possible means of leverage the international community says it can try to wield against the Taliban. So far, warnings of an aid cutoff have had little apparent effect.

It was unclear whether the Biden administration would be able to keep to its pledge to finish withdrawing U.S. troops by month’s end. Before the current phase of the crisis erupted, the U.S. presence had been reduced to between 2,500 and 3,000 troops. Now an equal number are arriving.

At the onset of this month’s Taliban offensive, U.S. officials pointed to the numerical superiority and firepower advantages of Afghan security forces, but there is growing acknowledgment that the Afghan police and military have been hollowed out by rampant corruption, low morale, a lack of basic supplies like food, and the abrupt withdrawal of the technical support of U.S.-paid contractors.

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Los Angeles Times staff writers Yam reported from Kabul and King from Washington.

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