The Taliban captured two major Afghan cities, the country's second- and third-largest after Kabul, and a strategic provincial capital on Thursday, further squeezing the embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission in Afghanistan. The seizure of Kandahar and Herat marks the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals as part of a weeklong blitz, the AP reports. The capture of the city of Ghazni, meanwhile, cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital, Kabul, with the country's southern provinces, all part of an insurgent push some 20 years after US and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government. While Kabul itself isn't directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who are estimated to now hold over two-thirds of the country and continue to press their offensive.
With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the US Embassy in Kabul. Separately, Britain said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country, and Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy. Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women's rights and conducting public amputations, stonings and executions. Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats met throughout the day. The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months. The Afghan government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban keep up their momentum. (Much more here.)