The Taliban has taken control of the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, Afghan Member of Parliament Gul Ahmad Kamin told CNN on Friday, as the insurgent group continues its rapid advancement toward the capital Kabul.
Kandahar, which lies in the south of the country, has been besieged by the Taliban for weeks, with many observers considering its fall as the beginning of the end for the country's US-backed government.
Kamin said he and many others had made their way to a military base close to the city's international airport and were awaiting a flight out. "Many (government) soldiers surrendered and the rest fled," Kamin said.
Kamin had earlier told CNN Taliban fighters had been able to break through the city's frontline and were engaging in sporadic confrontation with government forces.
Kandahar, which lies on the junction of three major highways, is of particular strategic importance and was formerly a major hub for US military operations. Its seizure marks the most significant gain yet for the Taliban, which has now taken control of 13 of the country's 34 provincial capitals.
The vast majority of the Taliban's territorial gains have come since the withdrawal of American forces, which began in May and is scheduled to be completed by late August.
Taliban makes rapid gains
The city of Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city and a major urban center in western Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban on Thursday evening local time, with the group taking control of the governor's office and Herat police headquarters, according to Afghan officials.
The city of Ghazni, a key provincial capital on the road to Kabul, also fell to the militant group earlier on Thursday, after "long and intense fighting," according to Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, head of Ghazni provincial council.
Ghazni lies around 93 miles (150 kilometers) south of Kabul, on a major highway connecting the capital with Kandahar.
With the capture of Ghazni, the Taliban is now in control of key locations both to the north and south of Kabul. Their earlier capture of areas of the Baghlan province, which lies to the north of Kabul, raised alarms among US officials because the location is considered essential for the defense of the capital.
A senior official in the Biden administration familiar with one US intelligence assessment said Kabul could be isolated by the Taliban in the next 30 to 60 days, increasing the potential the Afghan capital could soon fall under the control of the militant group.
In response to the Taliban's sweeping advance, the US announced it would deploy 3,000 US troops to Kabul to assist with a "reduction of civilian personnel at the embassy in Kabul" and to "facilitate the processing of" Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan nationals who assisted Americans during their time inside Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.
Two of the infantry battalions headed to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul are US Marines and one is US Army, Kirby said. The Defense Department will also bring in an additional 1,000 personnel from both US Army and US Air Force to help with the visa applicants, Kirby said.
Earlier Thursday, the US embassy in Kabul urged US citizens again to depart Afghanistan immediately.