The insurgents have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in an offensive less than three weeks before the US is set to withdraw its last troops.

The withdrawal of foreign forces has raised fears the Taliban could return to power.
The withdrawal of foreign forces has raised fears the Taliban could return to power. (Reuters)

Taliban fighters have captured Mazar-e-Sharif, the northern city that was the Afghan government's last northern stronghold, with security forces fleeing to the Uzbekistan border, officials said.

"The Taliban have taken control of Mazar-e-Sharif," Afzal Hadid, head of the Balkh provincial council said, adding that the city appeared to have fallen without a fight. 

Soldiers abandoned their equipment and headed towards the border crossing, he said.

"All security forces have left Mazar city," he said, though sporadic clashes were still taking place in one area outside the city centre.

The insurgents have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in an offensive less than three weeks before the US is set to withdraw its last troops.

The Taliban - ousted from power in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States -  captured the capital of Paktika province bordering Pakistan on Saturday, according to Khalid Asad, a lawmaker from the province.

He confirmed that Sharana fell to the insurgents on Saturday but could not immediately provide further details.

The Taliban also captured all of Logar and detained its provincial officials, Hoda Ahmadi, a lawmaker from the province, said Saturday. 

She said the Taliban have reached the Char Asyab district, just 11 kilometres south of the capital, Kabul.

READ MORE: US rushes envoy to Qatar to press Taliban to end military offensive

Ghani holds urgent talks

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani has held urgent talks with local leaders and international partners, as Taliban fighters inch closer to Kabul, capturing a town south of the capital that is one of the gateways to the city.

The United States and other countries rushed in troops to help evacuate their embassies after the militants captured town after town as US and other foreign forces who have backed the government withdrew. 

Many Afghans have fled to Kabul, driven out by fighting and fearful of a return to Taliban rule. 

"As your president, my focus is on preventing further instability, violence, and displacement of my people," Ghani said on Saturday in a brief televised address, adding that he was consulting government, elders, politicians and international leaders.

READ MORE: Taliban closes in on Kabul as US troops rush to Afghan capital for exit

He gave no sign of responding to a Taliban demand that he resign for any talks on a ceasefire and a political settlement, saying his priority remained the consolidation of the country's security and defence forces.

"Serious measures are being taken in this regard," he said, without elaborating.

On Wednesday, the president had flown to Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday to rally the city's defences, meeting with several militia commanders, including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, who command thousands of fighters.

They remain allied with the government, but during previous rounds of fighting in Afghanistan, warlords have been known to switch sides for their own survival. 

Ismail Khan, a powerful former warlord who had tried to defend Herat, was captured by the Taliban when the insurgents seized the western city after two weeks of heavy fighting.

Residents of Mazar-e-Sharif expressed fear about the security breakdown.

“The situation is dangerous outside of the city and inside the city," Mohibullah Khan said, adding that many residents are also struggling economically.

“The security situation in the city is getting worse," said Kawa Basharat. 

"I want peace and stability. The fighting should be stopped.”

READ MORE: Another northern Afghan province bordering Tajikistan falls to Taliban

The withdrawal of foreign forces and the swift retreat of Afghanistan's own troops - despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years - has raised fears the Taliban could return to power or the country could be shattered by factional fighting, as it was after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived on Friday to help partially evacuate the US Embassy. 

The rest are set to arrive by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its August 31 withdrawal deadline.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of August, pledging to end America's longest war. 

His predecessor, President Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.

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.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies