Afghan Taliban seize two major cities, raising fears of US withdrawal

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U.N warns of the catastrophic impact on Kabul because fighting for Kabul was fatal.

KABUL, Aug 13 - On Friday, civilian officials began evacuating civilian staff from Afghanistan after the Taliban claimed to have captured two of its biggest cities in an advance that raised fears of the collapse of the U.S. government.

The capture of Kandahar and Herat – the country's third and second largest cities - would represent the Taliban's two most significant victories since they began a broad offensive in May as U.S. - led foreign forces withdrew under a deal struck last year between militants and the United States.

The loss of major cities was a sign that Afghans welcomed the Taliban, according to Al Jazeera TV.

In response to the Taliban's sudden and violent advances https: graphics.reuters.com AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT FLASHPOINTS lbpgnrazjvq index.html, the Pentagon said it would evacuate about 3,000 extra troops https: www.reuters.com world asia-pacific exclusive-us - evacuate-significant number of employees - Ambassador-Kabul officials - 2021 - 08 - 12 in 48 hours to help evacuate U.S

Britain said it would deploy around 600 troops https: www.reuters.com world asia-pacific britain sends - troops-Afghanistan - help-evacuate - staff-citizens - 2021 - 08 - 12 to help its citizens out while other embassies and aid groups said they too were getting their people out.

It's best to reduce our foot-print not just because there is an increasing threat of violence but also resources, an official from the Turkish Embassy in Kabul told reporters on Friday.

Medical facilities are under massive pressure. We are also mindful of COVID - 19 and testing has almost come to a pause.

The speed of the Taliban offensive have sparked some recriminations among most Afghans over the decision by President Joe Biden to remove U.S. troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on Sept. 11.

Biden said this week he did not regret his decision, noting that Washington has wasted more than $1 trillion in America's longest war and lost thousands of troops.

The U.S. State DepartmentU.S. State Department said secretary of state Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him that the United States remains committed to Afghanistan security and stability. Ils also said the United States was committed to supporting a political solution.

The Taliban focused their offensive on Kabul, a region they never fully controlled during their 1996 - 2001 rule, and the heartland of the Northern Alliance forces who marched into Kabul with U.S. support in 2001

On Thursday, the Taliban overran Kandahar just 150 km southwest of Kabul, and the historic City of Ghazni in the south, according to Taliban and media.

The Taliban claimed also to have captured Qala-e-Naw in the south and Lashkar Gah in the northwest.

With government officials in control across much of the country, Reuters was unable to contact government officials immediately to confirm which of the cities under attack remained in government hands.

The government still holds the central city in the north-Sabah - Mazar-i- Sharif and Kabul - near the Pakistani border in the east, as well as Jalalabad.

On Wednesday, a U.S. military official quoted intelligence as saying Taliban could isolate Kabul within 60 days and possibly take it over within 90 days.

The United Nations has warned that a Taliban offensive reaching the capital would have a catastrophic impact on civilians but there is little hope for negotiations to end the fighting with the Taliban apparently set on a military victory.

In the withdrawal struck with former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration in the last year, the foreign comrades agreed not to attack U.S. forces as they withdrew.

They also made a pledge to discuss peace but intermittent meetings with government representatives have proved fruitless. In Qatar, international envoys in the Afghan negotiations called for an accelerated peace process as a matter of great urgency and for a halt to attacks on cities.

A Taliban spokesperson told Al Jazeera: We will not close the door to the political track.

According to Pakistani Prime Minister Ghani, Taliban refused to negotiate on a Tuesday until Imran Khan resigned. Many people on both sides would view that as tantamount to the government's surrender, leaving little to discuss but terms.

Pakistan officially denies backing the Taliban, but it has been an open secret that Taliban leaders live in Pakistan and recruit fighters from a network of religious schools in Pakistan.

Pakistan's military is long seen the Taliban as the best option to neutralise the influence of arch rival India in Afghanistan and counter ethnic Pashtun nationalism on both sides of a border that Afghanistan has never recognised.

Afghans, including many who have returned to maturity enjoying freedoms since the Taliban were ousted, have vented their anger on social media, tagging posts sanctionpakistan but there has been little criticism from Western capitals of Pakistan's role in this regard.

The United Nations Security Council was discussing a draft statement https: www.reuters.com world asia-pacific un-security - council-discussing - condemnation-taliban - 2021 - 08-13 that would condemn Taliban attacks, threaten sanctions and affirm the non-recognition of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, diplomats said.