Residents of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, are bracing for a potential onslaught after the Taliban seized more than half of the country’s provincial capitals and encircled the city.
The insurgent group, which is seeking to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law over the population, on Friday over-ran Puli Alam, the capital of eastern Logar province, just 70km south of Kabul.
It was part of a lightning offensive that has seen the militants dramatically alter the country’s political map in just a week, leaving them in control of Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities, respectively.
Displaced families were pouring into Kabul seeking refuge from fighting or Taliban control, as the militia has reportedly seized young girls and women for forced marriages in their newly captured territory. Many internal refugees have set up camps in the city’s parks.
Afghanistan’s beleaguered president, Ashraf Ghani, has made no public statement on the dramatic military setbacks. He travelled on Wednesday to Mazar-i-Sharif to rally the defence of the city, an anti-Taliban northern stronghold that has seen heavy fighting but remained under government control.
Ghani, a former World Bank official, has been under intense pressure from neighbouring Pakistan, which has close ties with the Taliban, to resign and pave the way for a power-sharing arrangement with the Islamist group.
The speed of the Taliban’s territorial grabs, often meeting little resistance as many Afghan troops surrendered after negotiations with the insurgent group’s forces, has left residents of the surrounded capital in despair.
Almost 120,000 Afghans have fled from rural areas and towns to Kabul province since the beginning of the year, the UN’s refugee agency said on Friday.
The expected arrival of 3,000 US troops and 600 British soldiers in Kabul this weekend could deter an immediate assault, though American military officials said the deployment was to assist with the evacuation of embassy staff and not a combat operation.
“Three thousand is a fair old number,” one Kabul-based security analyst told the Financial Times. “I wonder if they are reinserting them to at least give food for thought to the Taliban about whether trying to take Kabul is a good idea.”
Many educated Afghans, particularly women, expressed anguish, fear and rage at the country’s rapid unravelling, and especially at the abrupt US withdrawal that had inflicted serious damage on the morale of the Afghan armed forces.
“Today, everything has changed,” said Sara Wahedi, a former Afghan government official and chief executive of Ehtesab, a fledgling security app. “My family is having discussions on what to pack, what to sell, what to leave behind and what routes to take out of Kabul.”
“This moment feels final,” Muska Dastageer, a lecturer in political science at the American University of Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter. “Tens of millions of us will never recover. There was a belief in a future, in progress in a better tomorrow. And that is being crushed right now.”
Shafiqa Khpalwak, director of an Afghan foundation that promotes child literacy, said: “Everyone betrayed us. They kept us in the dark and they left us in darkness. I am sure that millions of Afghans feel the same.”
Human Rights Watch, the US non-governmental organisation, has appealed to the global community to open its doors to Afghans at particular risk, including high-profile women in public life, local employees of foreign governments, human rights activists and journalists.
“Foreign governments should prioritise providing visas and helping ensure safe passage for civilians that the Taliban may target for abuse because of their past work status,” the group urged.
Canada announced late on Friday that it was expanding its resettlement program to provide refuge for another 20,000 Afghans at the highest risk from the Taliban, but did not provide a timeline for doing so.