KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban on Saturday captured Mazar-e-Sharif, a key city in the north of Afghanistan, as they continued to advance on the country's capital Kabul.
The fall of the heavily fortified city came as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, powerful former warlords who command thousands of fighters, fled the province, local lawmaker Abas Ebrahimzada told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the first American troops began what the Pentagon had described as a limited mission to evacuate American embassy workers.
On Saturday, President Joe Biden said he had authorized a total of 5,000 troops, up from the 3,000 originally ordered to the region, "to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of U.S. personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance."
A Taliban spokesman told NBC News the group were aware of the original U.S. deployment, but said the militant group would act against U.S. forces only if provoked. He did not say whether the group would halt its advance on the capital while the evacuations were taking place.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meanwhile sought to reassure the population in a brief and vague televised address early Saturday.
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He said consultations with local leaders and the international community were underway and he still had hopes of being able to "stop the ongoing imposed war on Afghan people, so more people should not die."
"I know you all are worried about your present and future," he said. "I, as your president ensure you I (aim) to reduce violence and stop migration of people."
However, one Taliban commander, told NBC News that the militant group would soon "conquer and free Kabul."
He added that it would be "as easy" as the recent capture of the key cities of Kandahar and Herat which marked the biggest prizes yet for the militant group's campaign.
"Once they have Kabul, they have the whole country," said Bruce Jentleson, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University.
Jentleson, who served as senior advisor to the State Department Policy Planning Director under the Obama administration added that he thought they could take the city "pretty soon."
"That's why we're evacuating Kabul," he said, adding that he thought the Taliban's rapid gains had "surprised" the Biden administration, although he did not think that "the lesson in this was (U.S. troops) staying longer."
"When you give a country 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars and American lives...that's a pretty strong commitment and if it's not working, there's a point at which you end it," he said.
On Saturday Biden said the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has to end.
"One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.
"When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor — which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019 — that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500. Therefore, when I became President, I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict. I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth."
Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Chantal Da Silva and Saphora Smith reported from London.