KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan forces essentially collapsed in two more strategic provincial capitals on Tuesday, adding to an already alarming drumbeat of Taliban victories around the country and effectively cutting off the main highway connecting the country’s capital with northern Afghan provinces.
The two cities — Pul-i-Khumri, roughly 150 miles north of Kabul in Baghlan Province, and Farah, the capital of the western province of the same name — were the seventh and eighth to be overrun by the Taliban in less than a week. There, as in other fallen cities, witnesses and defenders described twinned crises of low morale and exhaustion in the face of unrelenting pressure by the insurgents.
The rapid Taliban victories have been a devastating blow to President Ashraf Ghani’s government, and to the military and police forces that the United States and its Western allies spent years and billions of dollars training to stand against the Taliban. And the losses are coming just three weeks before American troops are to complete their final withdrawal from the country, leaving a modest force behind to defend the U.S. Embassy.
The question of whether the Afghan forces can even successfully defend Kabul, the national capital, has become an urgent one, with heavy fighting now going on in or around every one of the country’s other most populous cities.
Mohammad Kamin Baghlani, a pro-government militia commander in Baghlan Province, described a sudden collapse in Pul-i-Khumri after withstanding a Taliban siege that had stretched on for months.
“We were under a lot of pressure, and we were not able to resist anymore,” he said. “All areas of the city fell.” He said that his forces had retreated south, toward Bagram Air Base and Kabul.
Bismullah Attash, a member of provincial council in Baghlan Province, confirmed that account, saying that despite months of heavy fighting around Pul-i-Khumri, the final fall on Tuesday was mostly bloodless.
Pul-i-Khumri is a city of more than 200,000 people on the highway connecting Kabul to Afghanistan’s northern region, where the insurgents have now effectively seized all but two provinces.
Witnesses and analysts have said that over the past week the Taliban have been able to turn each northern victory into an opportunity to send more forces to other critical battles. That raises the alarming possibility that a Taliban consolidation of strength in the north could make it easier to turn their offensive toward Kabul.
In western Afghanistan, Farah has been a focal point of the Taliban’s offensive operations for years. In recent weeks, a heavier push from the insurgents took its toll, officials said. But there were differing reports about whether government forces were still fighting to take back seized parts of the city on Tuesday.
Gulbuddin, a police officer in Farah city who like many Afghans goes by one name, said that government officials had fled to an army headquarters several miles outside the city and that the main prison had been breached by Taliban fighters. The streets, he said, were full of freed inmates.
Several residents of Farah, contacted by telephone, said there was little, if any, shooting in their parts of the city by Tuesday afternoon. Ahmad Zubair, who lives in the city, said he had heard or seen no sign of fighting.
“The Taliban are walking in our neighborhood,” he said.
Belqis Roshan, a member of Parliament from Farah Province, said that the governor’s office and the police headquarters had been seized, but fighting was still ongoing near the airport, in the city’s east. And Masood Bakhtawar, the provincial governor of Farah, denied that the city had been fully captured by the insurgents and said that fighting was ongoing.
Hasib Siddiqi, a resident of Farah city, said his neighbors had fled the city in recent days.
“We were deceived by the government’s assurances,” he said. “They said the city won’t collapse and that they have brought choppers and aircraft and they will defend the city.”
In recent weeks, the Afghan government has done little to articulate a plan to fend off the Taliban’s military offensive, which has captured roughly half of Afghanistan’s 400-odd districts since the U.S. withdrawal began on May 1.
But a fledgling strategy to slow down the Taliban’s string of victories does exist, U.S. and U.N. diplomats and officials say. As they described it, the plan aligns closely with longstanding U.S. recommendations that the Afghans consolidate their remaining forces around crucial roads and cities, as well as key border crossings, and abandon most of the dozens of districts already seized by the Taliban.
How that plan takes into consideration the capture of now eight provincial capitals around the country remains unclear. As of Tuesday, there were no reports that Afghan security forces had carried out any earnest operations to retake any of the seized capitals.
The one stopgap measure that Afghan military leaders appeared to rely on in recent months — shuttling better-trained commando forces from one vulnerable position to another to stymie the insurgent advance — has been exhausted. There are simply not enough of those troops to fight for all of the country’s 34 provincial capitals.
The seizure of Zaranj in Nimruz Province on the Afghanistan-Iran border on Friday highlighted this.
The 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army is responsible for security in both Zaranj and Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighboring Helmand Province, which had also been under siege for several days last week. The 215th Corps’ leadership ultimately shifted its focus to defending Lashkar Gah, leaving Zaranj open to the Taliban, who saw little resistance when they entered the city.
In the west, Farah Province sits on the main highway that runs to the western city of Herat, a sprawling provincial and cultural capital where Taliban fighters have also laid siege. The province also shares a border with Iran; the main border crossing there was seized by the Taliban last month.
Taking Farah and other cities in the area would allow the Taliban to funnel insurgent fighters toward Herat or elsewhere to reinforce other positions, while also limiting Afghan security forces’ ability to relocate to aircraft, which are in short supply because of a lack of maintenance resources and exhausted pilots.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said that the push to take provincial capitals was in response to an announcement earlier this month by Mr. Ghani, of his war strategy that included defending cities. Another Taliban official said the offensive against urban areas, which has killed and wounded thousands of civilians, was a response to American airstrikes.
But for whatever the reason, it was already clear months ago that the Taliban, confident of victory in battle, had all but stepped away from peace negotiations with the Afghan government.
Despite peace talks being stalled for several months, Afghan representatives met with Taliban officials this week in Doha, Qatar, in an attempt to restart negotiations.
Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, said the Taliban were willing to accelerate peace talks, but refused to discuss any kind of political settlement. Instead, they continued to demand the release of Taliban prisoners, which the Afghan government rejected.
Despite the Taliban’s rapid shift from attacking rural areas to assaulting cities, U.S. air support has been muted. The United States has only provided air support to Afghan security forces in two southern cities.
Barring intervention by the White House or Pentagon, such support is considered likely to end by Aug. 31, as American forces complete their withdrawal.
Taimoor Shah reported from Kandahar and Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim from Kabul, Afghanistan. Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul.
Taliban Overrun Seventh and Eighth Afghan Provincial Capitals is written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Najim Rahim and Taimoor Shah for www.nytimes.com