The Taliban captured the town of Sheberghan in Jawzjan, the second Afghan provincial capital to fall into the hands of the armed group in less than 24 hours.
The deputy governor of Sheberghan said on Saturday that government forces and officials had withdrawn to the airport on the outskirts of the northern city of Afghanistan, where they were preparing to defend themselves.
“The city has unfortunately completely fallen,” Qader Malia told AFP news agency. “The [government] forces and officials withdrew at the airport.
Provincial Councilor Bismillah Sahil said Taliban fighters had taken control of key buildings such as the governor’s office, the police headquarters and the city’s central prison.
However, pro-government forces still held certain areas inside the city such as the airport and an army brigade, according to Mohammad Karim Jawzjani, a parliamentarian who represents Jawzjan.
The city is home to notorious strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, who only returned to Afghanistan this week after receiving medical treatment in Turkey.
Dostum oversaw one of the north’s largest militias, which gained a formidable reputation in its fight against the Taliban in the 1990s – as well as accusations that its forces massacred thousands of prisoners of war.
The Taliban have conquered large parts of rural Afghanistan since launching a series of offensives in May to coincide with the start of the final withdrawal of foreign troops.
A rout or retreat of Dostum fighters would undermine the Kabul government’s recent hopes that armed groups could help bolster the country’s overwhelmed army.
On Friday, the town of Zaranj in Nimroz fell to the Taliban “without a fight”, according to its vice-governor, becoming the first provincial capital to be taken by the armed group.
“The Taliban say they control all major government buildings, the governor’s compound, police and intelligence headquarters,” Al Jazeera’s James Bays said from the Afghan capital Kabul.
Social media posts suggest the Taliban were greeted by some residents of the desert town of Sheberghan. They showed captured military Humvees, luxury SUVs and pickup trucks speeding through the streets, displaying white Taliban flags as residents – mostly young people and young men – cheered them on.
“Afghan security forces have lost morale because of intense Taliban propaganda,” a senior city official told AFP, who requested anonymity.
“Even before the Taliban attacks… most of the security forces put down their weapons, took off their uniforms, left their units and fled.
The Afghan government has yet to make any official comment on the fall of either city.
Sheberghan’s capture comes a day after the head of the Afghan government’s media information department was shot dead in Kabul in an attack claimed by the Taliban.
After a failed assassination attempt on the country’s defense minister on Tuesday, the Taliban warned they were now targeting senior administration officials in retaliation for the increase in airstrikes.
The Taliban already control large parts of the countryside and now challenge government forces in other provincial capitals, most notably Herat, near the western border with Iran, and Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
From Kunduz, activist Rasikh Maroof told AFP on Saturday by phone that fighting raged overnight on the outskirts of several parts of the city, with the Taliban apparently failing to impose itself in any meaningful way. .
Government forces “were seriously defending themselves,” he said, using airstrikes against Taliban mortars and heavy weapons.
The latest takeover comes as the United Nations warned the conflict could enter a “deadlier and more destructive phase.”
“To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous damage and cause massive civilian casualties,” Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, told the Security Council on Friday.
“Nonetheless, the threat of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue.”
Afghan Ambassador to the UN Ghulam Isaczai urged the Security Council to act to “avoid a catastrophic situation”.
“We are alarmed by reports and incidents of gross human rights violations by the Taliban and their foreign terrorist associates in nearly half of our country and we are extremely concerned for the safety and security of people in cities under the Taliban attacks, ”he said.