The Taliban are reported to be within seven miles of the Afghan capital, with skirmishes taking place in the outskirts of the city, as they also launched a fresh assault on a northern stronghold attempting to resist the Islamist group.
The sighting of the fighters in the Char Asyab district came after the fall of Logar province, opening the road to the district which is now considered a part of Greater Kabul. This was the latest in a series of moves which isolates the capital, with all routes out now cut.
The militants on Saturday also captured Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city and a key government stronghold which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend.
The latest gains, hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan, came as Afghanistan’s president made a much-anticipated speech which was expected to reveal a breakthrough in the talks held with the Talibs in the Qatari capital, Doha.
There had been feverish speculation among some officials and online that Ashraf Ghani would resign, believed to be a key demand of the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire.
An alleged text of a draft deal had been sent to diplomats and the media. If genuine, and there has been no official corroboration of it, the terms amount to an effective handover of power to the Islamists.
Instead, in a brief television address, the president said he would be consulting Afghan and international leaders with a “focus on preventing further instability, violence and displacement of my people”. He praised the sacrifices made by the security forces, stressing that he “will not give up the achievements of the last 20 years”.
Abdullah Abdullah, the head of High Council for National Reconciliation, and the chief government negotiator, had made fresh proposals at the talks through the Qatari government. He is due to return to Doha in the next few days with clarification of the government position following a meeting of the cabinet on Friday evening.
Mr Ghani, according to some accounts, is under pressure at home and abroad to step down. The US administration has firmly denied reports that it had advised him to do so, and officials from other western governments have issued similar denials.
The Pakistan prime minister, Imran Khan, had said that Taliban leaders had told him they would talk to the Afghan government only after Mr Ghani stands down. But since Pakistan has been the chief sponsor of the Islamist group, his statement was viewed in Afghanistan and the country’s western partners as reflecting an agenda.
Mr Ghani responded earlier this week that “some, particularly our neighbours, say if there is no Ashraf Ghani, everything will be OK and peace will return. My question and the question of millions of Afghans is: who would be my successor, and will he be appointed?"
While the Afghan government had held that the Taliban must take part in an election in its quest for running the country, the Islamist group is said to want power-sharing now, with most of the senior positions being held by them.
The main military thrust in the conflict moved back north with the Taliban launching a multi-pronged attack on Mazar-e-Sharif, a traditional bastion of the former Northern Alliance, historical adversaries of the Islamists.
Abas Ebrahimzada, an official from the Balkh province where the city is located, said the national army surrendered first, which prompted pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of the Taliban onslaught.
President Ghani had travelled to Mazar midweek to hold talks with the Uzbek and Tajik commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, to bolster the fight against the insurgents.
This was a volte face for Mr Ghani who, with the active encouragement of the US and the west, had attempted to neutralise warlords and their militias, and to give primacy to the Afghan army and police.
The two commanders are said to be in the forefront on the government side who want to continue combatting the Taliban. A number of senior members of the cabinet have also urged against further concessions to the Islamists.
The next step of the Talban on the Afghan capital remains to be seen. They may, according to Afghan security officials, try and strike into Kabul and get to Policharki prison, where significant numbers of Taliban inmates are kept, and bolster the size of their force, a tactic they had carried out with jails in Kunduz and Kandahar.
A major assault on the capital may not take place, given the arrival of American and British forces who have been sent to the country to carry out an emergency evacuation of British and Afghan civilians who had worked for the two governments.
The force, which includes US marines and British paratroopers, will be based at Kabul airport. In addition the US is also moving up to 5,000 troops to bases in Qatar and Kuwait. Following talks in Doha, the Taliban have been careful not to target US and other western troops, focusing on Afghan forces. Washington has repeatedly warned that any loss of American lives would lead to retribution.
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