5 days: The key dates that led to a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

They lost the country 20 years ago. In a matter of months the Taliban has regained control. Scroll through to see their swift advance.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP – Getty Images)

Taliban fighters stand guard along a roadside near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP – Getty Images)

By Saphora Smith and Jiachuan Wu
Aug. 16, 2021

Few predicted that it would happen this fast. 

The Taliban are on the brink of power in Afghanistan after sweeping through the country at break-neck speed.

After U.S. troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan on May 1, the Taliban launched its offensive to take back control of the country they lost to the United States nearly 20 years ago, after it toppled their regime in 2001.

President Donald Trump’s administration had made a deal with the militants in 2020 that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of April 2021. The Taliban was consequently angry with President Joe Biden’s decision to delay full withdrawal to a new deadline of Sept. 11, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered America’s invasion of the war-ravaged country.

The militants made swift work of capturing rural districts even in the north of the country, a stronghold for the government. They then turned their guns on Afghan cities. On Aug. 6, Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province, fell to the militants. Nine days later, Kabul and other major Afghan cities would also be in their hands.

By Monday, President Ashraf Ghani had fled, America was rushing to get its diplomatic personnel out of Kabul and the Taliban had control over three-quarters of the country. Two decades of fighting, thousands of lives and billions of dollars had failed to bring lasting democracy to Afghanistan.

NBC News has highlighted key moments in the insurgents’ path to victory.

At the end of April, remaining foreign forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan. 

Around this time the Taliban controlled around 76 districts or 19 percent of the country. The insurgents then launched an offensive to win back territory, including in the north of the country, once seen as off-limits to the militants.

The end of April had been the deadline for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, as part of a deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban made in February 2020.

By June 23, the Taliban were in control of 139 districts out of 398, or roughly a third of the country. They were advancing at a lightning pace that took international observers and even Taliban fighters by surprise

The speed of their offensive raised fresh doubts as to whether the U.S.-backed Afghan government could survive before U.S. forces left the country by Sept. 11.

Less than a month later, the militant group had seized control of half the country, toppling government districts like dominoes.

In particular, during this period gains were made in the north and west of the country. 

The next day, on July 8, President Joe Biden defended the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops as the country appeared increasingly likely to spiral into an extended civil war. Biden said the U.S. military mission would conclude earlier than expected, on Aug 31.

On Aug. 6, Taliban fighters overran their first provincial capital, setting off a series of gains that would see vital hubs across Afghanistan fall to the militants, some without much of a fight. 

On Aug. 13, the Taliban seized two major Afghan cities, Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west, the biggest prizes yet for the group. Then on Saturday, the insurgents captured Mazar-e-Sharif, the country's fourth-largest city, giving the Taliban control over all of northern Afghanistan.

Finally on Sunday, the Taliban seized the Afghan capital, Kabul. 

By Monday, the Taliban controlled three-quarters of the country including Kabul. 

President Ghani had fled the country and the Taliban were on the brink of taking political power. 

Two decades after it toppled the militant regime, the U.S. was scrambling to leave Afghanistan after the losses of thousands of U.S. lives and billions of dollars failed to bring lasting democracy.

Many Afghans also headed for Kabul airport, causing chaos on the tarmac as they attempted to board flights. 

The Pentagon said more troops would be deployed to the capital, eventually bringing the total force there to more than 6,000. 

Graphics data source:

FDD’s Long War Journal

Ahmed Mengli contributed.