The Taliban have captured three regional capitals in Afghanistan as they continue to make sizable territorial gains in the country.
They took control of the key northern city of Kunduz on Sunday, along with Sar-e-Pul and Taloqan.
This means that five regional capitals have fallen to militants since Friday, with Kunduz being their biggest gain this year.
The city is well connected to other neighborhoods, including the capital Kabul.
Violence escalated across Afghanistan after the United States and other international forces began withdrawing troops from the country after 20 years of military operations.
Taliban militants have made rapid progress in recent weeks. Having captured vast swathes of the countryside, they are now targeting key towns and cities.
The three northern towns fell under Taliban control within hours of each other on Sunday, with one Kunduz resident calling the situation “utter chaos.”
The Afghan government, meanwhile, said its forces were fighting to take back key facilities.
Heavy fighting was also reported in Herat, to the west, and in the southern towns of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.
Thousands of civilians have been displaced this year. Families, including babies and young children, have taken refuge in a school in the northeastern city of Asadabad.
“Many bombs were dropped on our village. The Taliban came and destroyed everything. We were powerless and had to leave our homes. Our children and ourselves are sleeping on the floor in dire conditions,” Gul Naaz told AFP.
“There were gunshots, one of my seven-year-old daughters came out during this fighting and disappeared. I don’t know if she is alive or dead, ”said another displaced resident.
The United States has stepped up airstrikes on Taliban positions, with Afghan military officials claiming militants killed. But the Taliban say the airstrikes hit two hospitals and a school in the town of Lashkar Gah. Neither claim has been independently verified.
The US Embassy in Afghanistan condemned the “Taliban’s” new violent offensive against Afghan cities, “saying the group’s actions to” forcefully impose its rule are unacceptable. “
“They show blind disregard for the well-being and rights of civilians and will worsen the humanitarian crisis in this country,” he said in a statement.
A big change on the battlefield
By Khalil Noori, BBC News, Kabul
This attack on a number of strategic towns and their fall to the Taliban was unprecedented. But as the deadline for the total withdrawal of foreign forces approached, a big change on the battlefield was expected.
Now is the time for the Afghan government to prove that its well-equipped force, 350,000 men, are capable of recapturing lost areas.
It would be difficult for the Taliban to hold Kunduz, but for several weeks the group has retained control of important shopping centers for trade with Iran and Pakistan.
The populations of the towns taken by the Taliban pay the price of the war, having lost relatives or property. They have to leave their homes, fearing the launch of a government operation to take over the towns.
Peace talks with the Taliban in Doha are deadlocked. If the process resumes, both sides will now try to control the larger area to justify more power, if they agree on a transitional government.
The importance of Kunduz
The capture of Kunduz is the biggest gain for the Taliban since they launched their offensive in May. The city, which is home to 270,000 inhabitants, is considered a gateway to the northern provinces of the country, rich in minerals.
And its location makes it strategically important as there are highways connecting Kunduz to other major cities, including Kabul, and the province shares a border with Tajikistan.
This border is used for smuggling Afghan opium and heroin to Central Asia, which then goes to Europe. Controlling Kunduz is controlling one of the most important drug trafficking routes in the region.
It also has symbolic meaning for the Taliban as it was a key stronghold in the north before 2001. Militants captured the city in 2015 and again in 2016, but were never able to hold onto it for long.
Does Afghanistan remain “friendless”?
By Paul Adams, BBC diplomatic correspondent
Former British General Sir Richard Barrons says there is a danger that Afghanistan will feel “friendless”, following recent defeats on the battlefield and the possible withdrawal of diplomats and contractors from Kabul if the things are getting worse.
It is far too early to speculate on a Saigon-style withdrawal from the capital, echoing the way the Americans hastily left Vietnam in the final act of the war, in 1975.
But in recent days, UK and US calls for their nationals to leave the country threaten to create a dangerous narrative.
This is something that has worried Western military planners for some time, following US President Joe Biden’s decision in April to withdraw US forces by September 11.
In June, classified documents from the UK Ministry of Defense were found at a Canterbury bus stop by a member of the public. One of them expressed precisely this concern, speaking of the need to counter a “narrative of abandonment” in Afghanistan.
“Precise language may be needed,” he said, “to avoid misunderstandings about ‘downshifting to zero’ versus normal diplomatic (including military) representation. “
“Retrograde to zero” is the particular euphemism used to describe the process of withdrawal now in its final weeks. In other words, the planners were all too aware of creating the dangerous impression that Afghanistan could indeed be left “friendless”.
It’s not yet the case. US airstrikes are still used to try to stop the Taliban’s advances. Britain and the United States will undoubtedly have hidden assets on the ground, working feverishly to stem the tide of war.