At least five provincial capitals have reportedly been captured by the Taliban during the past 48 hours as the insurgents intensify their offensive that was launched in May as foreign forces began the final stages of their withdrawal.
The Taliban have captured key government buildings in the capital cities of Sar-e-Pul and Kunduz provinces.
The insurgent group had earlier on Sunday claimed to have captured both the provinces.
Later, AFP citing a security source and residents reported that the group has also taken over Taloqan city, capital of northeastern Takhar province.
There was no immediate response from the Afghan government.
On Friday the Taliban seized their first provincial capital, Zaranj in southwestern Nimroz, and followed it up a day later by taking Sheberghan in Jawzjan the next day.
"The Taliban have surrounded an army battalion on the outskirts of the city. All other parts of the city are under Taliban control," Mohammad Hussein Mujahidzada, a member of the Sar-e-Pul provincial council said on Sunday.
The insurgents have taken government buildings in the northern provincial capital of Sar-e Pul, driving officials out of the main city to a nearby military base, Mohammad Noor Rahmani, another provincial council member of Sar-e Pul province, said.
He added that, "Government headquarters, including the governor's house, police command, and the National Directorate of Security compound, are captured by the Taliban."
Government forces fighting to retake installations
Of all the provincial capitals that the Taliban have launched assaults on since Friday, Kunduz – in the far north – is the most significant of the targets.
"Kunduz has fallen; the Taliban have taken all the key installations in the city," an AFP correspondent said on Sunday.
It has been a perennial target for the Taliban, who briefly overran the city in 2015 and again in 2016 but never managed to hold it for long.
"Heavy clashes started yesterday afternoon, all government headquarters are in control of the Taliban, only the army base and the airport is with ANDSF (Afghan security forces) from where they are resisting the Taliban," Amruddin Wali, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said.
"The Taliban have reached the main square of the city. Aircraft are bombing them," said Abdul Aziz, a resident reached by phone. "There is total chaos."
Rohullah Ahmadzai, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said on Facebook that special forces were in Kunduz and had been conducting 'clearance operations' in the city to take back media offices that the Taliban had captured.
Fighting was also reported on the outskirts of Herat, in the west, and Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
Afghan government forces have largely abandoned the countryside to the militants, but are now scrambling to defend a string of cities across the country.
If this is true, Kunduz may be next to fall. According to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahied, the Taliban has taken control of most of Kunduz City, and is "advancing rapidly towards the governor's office, the airport and other government buildings." https://t.co/8jTNbOoOuW— Bill Roggio (@billroggio) August 8, 2021
US air strikes
The pace of Taliban advances has caught government forces flatfooted, but they had some respite late Saturday after US warplanes bombed Taliban positions in Sheberghan.
"US forces have conducted several air strikes in defence of our Afghan partners in recent days," Major Nicole Ferrara, a Central Command spokesperson, told AFP in Washington.
Kabul's inability to hold the north may prove crucial to the government's long-term survival.
Northern Afghanistan has long been considered an anti-Taliban stronghold that saw some of the stiffest resistance to militant rule in the 1990s.
The region continues to be home to several militias and is also a fertile recruiting ground for the country’s armed forces.
Sheberghan is the stronghold of notorious Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose militiamen and government forces were reported to have retreated to the airport.
Dostum has overseen one of the largest militias in the north and garnered a fearsome reputation fighting the Taliban in the 1990s – along with accusations his forces massacred thousands of insurgent prisoners of war.
Any retreat of his fighters would dent the government's recent hopes that militia groups could help bolster the country's overstretched military.
The government has said little about the fall of the provincial capitals, other than vowing they would be retaken.
Pilot killed in Taliban bombing
An Afghan Air Force pilot has been killed by a bomb in Kabul, officials said, in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
The pilot, Hamidullah Azimi, died when a sticky bomb attached to his vehicle detonated, officials said on Saturday, adding that five civilians were wounded in the explosion.
Azimi was trained to fly US-made UH60 Black Hawk helicopters and had served with the Afghan Air Force for almost four years, the force's commander, Abdul Fatah Eshaqzai, told Reuters.
He had moved to Kabul with his family a year ago due to security threats, Eshaqzai added.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Muhajid said in a statement that the Taliban carried out the attack.
Reuters was first to detail a Taliban campaign to assassinate pilots off-base that Afghan officials say claimed the lives of at least seven Afghan pilots before Saturday's killing.
The Taliban has confirmed a program that would see US-trained Afghan pilots "targeted and eliminated."
#الفتح:— Zabihullah (..ذبـــــیح الله م ) (@Zabehulah_M33) August 7, 2021
مهم: نن سهار دکابل چهار آسیاب ولسوالۍ بازارکلا چهارسوق سیمه کې د مزدور دښمن یو تن پیلوټ حمیدالله عظیمي(چې دامریکایي بلیک هاک هلیکوپترو پیلوټ و او پرملکي خلکو په بمباریوکې یې برخه لرله) دسپرلۍ په موټرتکتیکي چاودنه وشوه.
په چاودنه کې نوموړی و وژل شو او موټر یې له منځه لاړ. pic.twitter.com/SZ5DuuUwA7
US and Afghan officials believe it is a deliberate effort to destroy Afghanistan's corps of US- and NATO-trained military pilots as fighting escalates across the country.
The Taliban – who have no air force – want to level the playing field as they press major ground offensives that have seen them swiftly seize territory since May.
As the Taliban eye other cities, the Afghan Air Force has played a crucial role in holding them back.