Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Mazar as hundreds of Afghan soldiers surrendered to the Taliban isurgent group in nearby Kunduz.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the besieged northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to rally his beleaguered forces, with the Taliban having now taken more than a quarter of the country's provincial capitals in less than a week.
His visit was immediately overshadowed by the mass surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz, along with the overnight capture of another provincial capital in Badakhshan.
The Taliban captured Faizabad overnight, making it the ninth city to be overrun since Friday.
One army officer who asked not to be identified said they had endured withering mortar fire at Kunduz airport, and were left with no choice but to surrender.
"There was no way to fight back," he told AFP.
"My unit, with 20 soldiers, three humvees and four pick-up trucks just surrendered. We are now all waiting to get our pardon letter. There is a big queue."
In Mazar, Ghani held talks with long-time local strongman Atta Mohammad Noor and infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum about the defence of the city, as Taliban fighters inched closer to its outskirts.
The loss of Mazar would be a catastrophic blow to the Kabul government and represent the complete collapse of its control over the north – long a bastion of anti-Taliban militias.
Hours before Ghani arrived, pictures posted on official government social media accounts showed Dostum boarding a plane in Kabul, along with a contingent of commandos, en route to Mazar.
After arriving in Mazar, Dostum issued a warning to the approaching Taliban.
"The Taliban never learn from the past," he told reporters, vowing to kill the insurgents.
"The Taliban have come to the north several times but they were always trapped. It is not easy for them to get out."
Dostum stands accused of massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war during the US-backed operations in 2001 that toppled the hardline Islamists' rule over the country.
Fighting in Afghanistan's long-running conflict has escalated dramatically since May when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal set to be completed before the end of the month.
Further to the east of Mazar in Badakhshan's capital Faizabad, a local lawmaker told AFP that security forces had retreated after days of heavy clashes.
"The Taliban have captured the city now," said Zabihullah Attiq.
The insurgents also confirmed in a social media post that their fighters were in control of the city.
After conquering most of the north, the Taliban have now set their sights on the region's biggest city, Mazar-e-Sharif, long a linchpin for the government's control of the area, after capturing Sheberghan to its west, and Kunduz and Taloqan to its east.
Government forces are also battling the militants in Kandahar and Helmand, the southern Pashto-speaking provinces from where the Taliban draw their strength.
But even as the Taliban routed government forces, US President Joe Biden gave no hint of delaying his deadline to withdraw all American troops by August 31, instead urging Afghan leaders to "fight for themselves" on Tuesday.
"I do not regret my decision" to withdraw US troops after two decades of war, he told reporters in Washington.
And as fighting raged, US diplomats were desperately trying to breathe life back into all but dead talks between the Afghan government and Taliban in Doha, where Washington's special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was pushing the Taliban to accept a ceasefire.
The Taliban have appeared largely indifferent to peace overtures, and seem intent on a military victory to crown a return to power after their ouster 20 years ago in the wake of the September 11 attacks.