President Joe Biden doubled down on Saturday on his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan despite the Taliban's rapid advances, but pledged to send more troops to evacuate civilians and warned the insurgents not to threaten that mission.
After consultations with his national security team, Biden said a total of "approximately 5,000" US soldiers -- up from 3,000 -- will now help organise evacuations and the end of the US mission after 20 years on the ground.
He warned the Taliban that any action "that puts US personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong US military response."
Biden's announcement came after Taliban captured the main northern holdout city of Mazar-i-Sharif and continued their rapid march towards the capital Kabul. Later, the insurgents also claimed to have captured the city of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border and Maidan Wardak adjoining Kabul.
The collapse of Jalalabad and Maidan Wardak leaves Afghanistan's central government in control of just Kabul and six other provincial capitals out of the country's 34.
The US has continued holding peace talks between the government and the Taliban in Qatar this week, and the international community has warned that a Taliban government brought about by force would be shunned. But the insurgents appear to have little interest in making concessions as they rack up victories on the battlefield.
As the security situation worsened in the war-torn country, former US president Donald Trump accused Biden of failing on Afghan policy and said everyone knew his successor "couldn't handle the pressure".
"The Taliban no longer has fear or respect for America, or America's power. What a disgrace it will be when the Taliban raises their flag over America's Embassy in Kabul.
"This is a complete failure through weakness, incompetence, and total strategic incoherence," Trump said in a statement.
"He ran out of Afghanistan instead of following the plan our Administration left for him -- a plan that protected our people and our property, and ensured the Taliban would never dream of taking our Embassy or providing a base for new attacks against America. The withdrawal would be guided by facts on the ground," Trump said.
But Biden, whose decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan has come under increased scrutiny given the implosion of the country's armed forces, laid some of the blame at the feet of Trump.
"When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor... that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021, deadline on US forces," Biden said.
"I faced a choice -- follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies' forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country's civil conflict," he added.
"I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan -- two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth," Biden said.
Earlier, US Central Command said more American military personnel had arrived in Kabul to ensure the safe evacuation of American embassy employees and Afghan civilians who worked for US forces.
The Pentagon estimates it will need to evacuate about 30,000 people before it completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31, a deadline set by Biden.
On Sunday, helicopters began landing at the US Embassy and rapid shuttle-run flights near the embassy began. DIplomatic armoured SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post. The US government did not immediately acknowledge the movements. However, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy's roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the situation.
In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban has defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swathes of the country, even with some air support by the US military.
President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke to the nation on Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated as well. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving Ghani without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents' advance.
Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing the future. While Kabul appeared calm on Sunday, some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.
The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country's fourth-largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, handed the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan.
Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum, two of the warlords Ghani tried to rally to his side days earlier, fled over the border into Uzbekistan on Saturday, said officials close to Dostum. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorised to publicly speak about his movements.
Writing on Twitter, Noor alleged a “conspiracy” aided the fall of the north to the Taliban, without elaborating.
“Despite our firm resistance, sadly, all the government and the Afghan security forces equipment were handed over to the Taliban as a result of a big organized and cowardly plot,” Noor wrote. “They had orchestrated the plot to trap Marshal Dostum and myself too, but they didn't succeed.”
In Jalalabad, militants posted photos online showing them in the governor's office. Abrarullah Murad, a lawmaker from the province told The Associated Press that the insurgents seized Jalalabad after elders negotiated the fall of the government there. Murad said there was no fighting as the city surrendered.
In his speech on Saturday, Ghani vowed not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
“We have started consultations, inside the government with elders and political leaders, representatives of different levels of the community as well as our international allies,” Ghani said. “Soon the results will be shared with you,” he added, without elaborating further.
Many Afghans fear 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 forbidden to work or attend school, and could not leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.
Salima Mazari, one of the few female district governors in the country, expressed fears about a Taliban takeover Saturday in an interview from Mazar-i-Sharif, before it fell.
“There will be no place for women,” said Mazari, who governs a district of 36,000 people near the northern city. “In the provinces controlled by the Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes.”
In a statement late Saturday, however, the Taliban insisted their fighters wouldn''t enter people''s homes or interfere with businesses. They also said they''d offer an “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces.
“The Islamic Emirate once again assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honor and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation,” the militants said. “In this regard, no one should worry about their life.”
Despite the pledge, those who can afford a ticket have been flocking to Kabul International Airport, the only way out of the country.
With inputs from agencies