Kabul: The Taliban on Friday claimed to have captured two major Afghan cities, the country's second and third-largest after Kabul, and the strategic provincial capital, further squeezing the embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission in Afghanistan.
A Taliban spokesman from an officially recognised account tweeted that Kandahar has been completely conquered and that the Mujahideen has reached Martyrs' Square in the city.
A resident backed the claim, who told AFP government forces appeared to have withdrawn en masse to a military facility outside the southern city.
The government has now effectively lost control of most of the country, following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has left the Afghan government and its US backers stunned.
The offensive was launched after the United States and its allies all but withdrew their forces from Afghanistan, with President Joe Biden determined to end two decades of war by September 11.
Biden has insisted he has no regrets with his decision, but the speed and ease of the Taliban's urban victories in recent days have been a surprise and forced new calculations.
"We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation," US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters while noting the embassy would remain open.
The Pentagon said 3,000 US troops would be deployed to Kabul within the next 24 to 48 hours, underscoring that they would not be used to launch attacks against the Taliban.
Price said the United States would also start sending in daily flights to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the Americans.
The conflict has escalated dramatically since May when US-led forces began the final stage of their troop withdrawal.
After months of taking what was considered less strategically important rural areas, the Taliban zeroed in on the cities.
In the past week, the insurgents have taken over a dozen provincial capitals and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is now one of the few holdouts remaining.
Pro-Taliban social media accounts have boasted of the vast spoils of war their fighters had recovered in recent days.
They have posted photos of armoured vehicles, heavy weapons and even a drone seized by the insurgents at abandoned military bases.
After being under siege for weeks, government forces on Thursday pulled out of Herat -- an ancient silk road city near the Iranian border -- and retreated to a district army barracks.