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Rampant Taliban capture key Kunduz as Afghan cities fall in wake of U.S. withdrawal

The fall of the city of Kunduz, capital of the northern province of the same name, could deal a significant blow to crumbling Afghan government forces.

Taliban fighters captured one of Afghanistan’s main cities on Sunday as the militants seized on the withdrawal of U.S. forces and collapsing resistance to sweep into provincial capitals across the country.

The fall of the city of Kunduz, capital of the northern province of the same name, could deal a significant blow to crumbling Afghan government forces after the militant group captured two other regional hubs in as many days.

“The Taliban has captured Kunduz after heavy fighting in which the two sides suffered casualties. We left Kunduz but fighting is still going on for control on the airport,” said Abdul Ahad Torial Kakar, a member of the Kunduz provincial council. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also told NBC News the militants had captured the city, and that government officials had left their posts.

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Kunduz is Afghanistan's approximately sixth-largest city and a crucial commercial hub. It's a strategic crossroads with easy access to much of the country's north as well as the capital, Kabul, about 200 miles away.

The fall of the city, at the heart of a major agricultural region near Tajikistan, comes after insurgent fighters on Saturday claimed control of Sheberghan, the capital of the northern Jawzjan province. That was less than 24 hours after Zaranj, the heart of Nimroz province in southwest Afghanistan, became the first provincial capital to fall to the militants since U.S. forces began withdrawing from the country.

Afghan men walk along a road in Zaranj after the Taliban captured their first provincial capital since launching an offensive in May.- / AFP - Getty Images

The Taliban recently began to lay siege to provincial capitals after taking smaller administrative districts.

The militants began an aggressive offensive in May and have advanced through the country at a speed that has even surprised some of the fighters themselves.

Recently, the group said it had captured more than half of Afghanistan's territory, including strategic border crossings.

That has driven thousands out of their homes to seek refuge, from both the fighting and the prospect of the hard-line Islamist regime that ruled the country before 2001 being reimposed.

While in power, the Taliban enforced a strict version of Islam that made women and girls practically invisible in public life.

With the group resurgent, a slew of assassinations has struck Afghanistan, mainly targeting prominent women, journalists, judges and others fighting to sustain a liberal way of life in the country.

Stranded people wait for the reopening of a border crossing in Chaman after the Taliban took control of the Afghan town.ASGHAR ACHAKZAI / AFP - Getty Images

The U.S. Air Force continues to aid the Afghan air force’s bombing of Taliban targets in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces as Afghan security forces try to prevent a Taliban takeover.

The Taliban seized Kunduz for around two weeks in 2015 before withdrawing in the face of a NATO-backed Afghan offensive. The insurgents pushed back into the city center a year later, briefly raising their flag before gradually being driven out again.

On Saturday, the U.S. and British embassies in Kabul repeated a warning to citizens still there to leave “immediately” as the security situation deteriorated.

"The continued Taliban offensive does nothing but lead to more bloodshed," a State Department spokesperson said Friday. "If the Taliban continue down this path, they will be an international pariah without support from the international community or even the people they say they want to govern."

The U.S. toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 after the group sheltered Osama bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda and the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks that triggered America’s longest war.

President Joe Biden said last month that the U.S. military mission in the country will conclude Aug. 31, earlier than initially announced.

The conflict has cost the lives of around 2,300 U.S. troops. From 2001 to 2018, some 58,000 Afghan military and police were killed in the violence, according to a study by Brown University.

Rhea Mogul reported from London, and Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.

The Associated Press contributed.