Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said on Saturday remobilising security and defence forces was his foremost priority, a remark that came against the backdrop of speculations over his possible ouster in the wake of a lightning Taliban offensive capturing over half of the war-torn country.
In a brief and pre-recorded televised message, Ghani tried to send out two key messages: a resignation does not seem imminent though the buzz has been growing stronger, and that he was not ready to give up the “achievements” of the past 20 years.
"I assure you that as your president my focus is to prevent further instability, violence and displacement of the people," he said, as the Taliban launched a major offensive on the government-held northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and closed in on the capital city of Kabul.
Ghani said remobilising Afghan security and defence forces was his top priority, according to Tolo News. In many parts of the country, Afghan security personnel have either surrendered before the insurgents or changed sides, in a spectacular collapse of the military that the US helped build over two decades by pumping in billions of dollars. Afghan security forces outnumber the Taliban three to one, at least on paper.
Ghani said he will not allow "the imposed war" on Afghans to bring further killings, loss of the gains of the last 20 years, destruction of public property and continued instability. It was his first such speech since the recent Taliban gains that boast of capturing 18 of the country's 34 provincial capitals over two weeks in a blitzkrieg.
Meanwhile, the Taliban's brazen advances towards Kabul continued on Saturday as the insurgents seized another province just south of Afghanistan's capital and launched a multi-pronged assault on Mazar-I-Sharif that is defended by powerful former warlords, Afghan officials said.
The militant regime, whose earlier rule was marked by an iron grip on media and communications, also took over the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, renaming it the 'Voice of Sharia'.
Several nations who had established diplomatic ties with Afghanistan's democratic regime after painstaking efforts of over 20 years, were scrambling to empty out their consulates and evacuate staff before the besieged capital finally fell to the Islamist insurgents.
Citizens on the other hand were practically abandoned to fend for themselves as they grappled with mixed emotions of confusion, fear and anger. Thousands walked miles and emptied out onto the streets of Kabul to escape fighting in their home cities. With Kabul's fate now hanging in balance, many said they were terrified for their future.
Taliban makes fresh gains in Logar
The insurgents have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in a breakneck offensive less than three weeks before the United States is set to withdraw its last troops, raising fears of a full militant takeover or another Afghan civil war. They are barely 11 kilometers (7 miles) south of the national capital, the seat of US-backed Ghani's democratic government.
The Taliban captured all of Logar province, detained its provincial officials and reached a district in the neighbouring Kabul province on Saturday, said Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from Logar.
The Taliban also attacked Mazar-i-Sharif from several directions, setting off heavy fighting on its outskirts, according to Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor. There was no immediate word on casualties.
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country's second- and third-largest cities. The Western-backed government is in control of a smattering of provinces in the centre and east, as well as Kabul in central and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.
The only other cities of any significance that have not been taken yet were Jalalabad, Gardez and Khost -- Pashtun-dominated provinces and unlikely to offer much resistance now.
Afghan forces collapse
The surrenders of government-ruled territories seem to be happening as fast as the Taliban can travel.
The swift offensive has resulted in mass surrenders, captured helicopters and millions of dollars of US-supplied equipment paraded by the Taliban on grainy cellphone videos. In some cities, heavy fighting had been underway for weeks on their outskirts, but the Taliban ultimately overtook their defensive lines and then walked in with little or no resistance.
Facing setback after setback, Afghan forces are aligning with influential warlords to withstand the Taliban's challenge, but that strategy too seems to be imploding.
This is especially troubling as the US and its NATO allies have spent the best part of the last 20 years training and equipping the Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government should, in theory, still hold the upper hand with a force outnumbering the Taliban at least on paper. Yet images of sandal-clad Afghan fighters overtaking city after city as troops armed with sophisticated weaponry retreat has vexed the Western world. But the answers perhaps lie in Afghan army and police's troubled history of high casualties, desertions and corruption from much before.
Taliban seizes Kandahar radio station
The Taliban meanwhile released a video announcing the takeover of the main radio station in the southern city of Kandahar, renaming it the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law.
In the video, an unnamed insurgent said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. It appears the station will no longer play music.
It was not clear if the Taliban had purged the previous employees or allowed them to return to work. Most residents of Kandahar sport the traditional dress favored by the Taliban. The man in the video congratulated the people of Kandahar on the Taliban's victory.
The Taliban have used mobile radio stations over the years, but have not operated a station inside a major city since they ruled the country from 1996-2001. At that time, they also ran a station called Voice of Sharia out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the militant group. Music was banned.
The US invaded shortly after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida planned and carried out while being sheltered by the Taliban. After rapidly ousting the Taliban, the US shifted toward nation-building, hoping to create a modern Afghan state after decades of war and unrest.
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of August, stating that the US wasn't responsible for nation-building efforts, and that the safety and security of their homeland was primarily Afghan people's lookout. His predecessor, President Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.
Biden's announcement set the latest offensive in motion. The Taliban, who have long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, with many fearing a return to the Taliban's oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were largely confined to the home.
With inputs from agencies