Aug. 14 (UPI) — The key northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif fell into the hands of the Taliban on Saturday as the militants continued their advance across the country toward the capital of Kabul, according to multiple reports.
Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s commercial hub and capital of the province of Balkh, fell to the insurgents after Afghan National Army units abruptly withdrew, The New York Times and CNN reported.
Mazar-i-Sharif was the last remaining government stronghold in northern Afghanistan and its fall is potentially disastrous for the government. The north has traditionally been the center of the strongest opposition to the Taliban — local warlords there united to form the so-called Northern Alliance in the 1990s.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced in a tweet that Mazar-i-Sharif had been “completely conquered.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the besieged city Wednesday where he exhorted government forces and the warlords to stand firm against the Taliban.
The fall of the key city came only hours after Ghani said in an address to the nation he is seeking to avoid “further instability” as the Taliban expanded their control to around 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Among their recent conquests are the major cities of Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, and Herat — taken as U.S. forces neared the end of their withdrawal from a 20-year war.
Ghani offered condolences to the families of fallen soldiers and civilians, and praised the Afghan National Defense and Security Force for their efforts and bravery in his address.
He also said that currently the priority is coordination with the ANDSF, and “we are taking serious steps,” as the country faces “serious threats of instability.”
“I am aware of your concerns about your present and future, I would like to assure you that as your president all my focus is to avoid further instability, aggression and displacement,” Ghani said. “As a historic responsibility, I will endeavor not to allow the current war to further kill innocent people and to lose their 20-year gains and destroy public property.
“For these reasons I have initiated consultations with elders and political figures and different ethnic leaders and international partners,” he continued. “Consultations are under way and the outcome will be shared with you all very soon … I always wanted success and progress of Afghanistan and will continue my endeavors.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, ordered the deployment of 3,000 troops to Afghanistan Thursday to assist in the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
The U.S. Embassy presence will be reduced to a “core diplomatic presence,” the Biden administration announced Thursday, and the United States is considering relocating the U.S. Embassy to the Kabul airport, a U.S. official, a Western diplomatic source and another source familiar with the situation told CNN Thursday.
The 3,000 U.S. troops will also help with the drawdown of U.S. forces expected to completely withdraw by the end of the month, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday.