KABUL, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Taliban insurgents tightened their grip on Afghanistan on Friday, wresting control of the second- and third-biggest cities as Western embassies prepared to send in troops to help evacuate staff from the capital, Kabul.
The capture of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes is a devastating setback for the government as the Taliban advances turn into a rout.
"The city looks like a front line, a ghost town," provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi said by telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran. "Families have either left or are hiding in their homes."
A government official said Kandahar, the economic hub of the south, was under Taliban control.
The defeats have fueled concern that the U.S.-backed government could fall to the insurgents within weeks as international forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war.
"The situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe," the U.N. World Food Programme's Thomson Phiri told a briefing, adding the agency was concerned about a "larger tide of hunger."
The fighting has also raised fears of a refugee crisis and a rollback of gains in human rights. Some 400,000 civilians have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, 250,000 of them since May, a U.N. official said.
Under the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, women could not work, girls were not allowed to attend school and women had to cover their face and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture out of their homes. In early July, Taliban fighters ordered nine women to stop working in a bank.
Of Afghanistan's major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, in addition to Kabul.
SHELTERING IN PARKS
In response to the Taliban advances, the Pentagon said on Thursday it would send about 3,000 extra troops within 48 hours to help evacuate U.S. embassy staff.
Britain said it would deploy about 600 troops to help its citizens leave while other embassies, including that of the Netherlands, and aid groups said they were also getting their people out.
Many embassies were asking staff to destroy or remove classified documents as part of evacuation plans, a Western official told Reuters.
U.S. intelligence assessments concluded this week that the Taliban could isolate Kabul within 30 days and take it over in 90.
Television footage showed families camping out in a Kabul park with little or no shelter, escaping violence elsewhere in the country. The United Nations has said a Taliban offensive reaching Kabul would have a "catastrophic impact on civilians" but there is little hope for a negotiated end to the fighting, with the insurgents apparently set on a military victory.
The Taliban also captured the towns of Lashkar Gah in the south and Qala-e-Naw in the northwest, security officers said. Firuz Koh, capital of central Ghor province, was handed over without a fight, officials said.
The militants, fighting to defeat the government and impose their strict version of Islamic rule, have taken control of 14 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals since Aug. 6.
After seizing Herat, the insurgents detained veteran commander Mohammad Ismail Khan, an official said, adding that they had promised not to harm him and other captured officials.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed that Khan, who had been leading fighters against the Taliban, was in their custody.
The speed of the offensive, as U.S.-led foreign forces prepare to complete their withdrawal by the end of this month, has sparked recriminations over President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. troops, 20 years after they ousted the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Biden said this week he did not regret his decision, noting Washington has spent more than $1 trillion in America's longest war and lost thousands of troops.
The loss of Kandahar will be a heavy blow to the government. It is the heartland of the Taliban, ethnic Pashtun fighters who emerged in 1994 amid the chaos of civil war to sweep through most of the rest of the country over the next two years.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday and told him the United States remained "invested" in Afghanistan's security.
But at home, criticism of Biden's policy has been mounting.
The Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, said the exit strategy was sending the United States "hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975," and urged Biden to commit to providing more support to Afghan forces.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Afghanistan was spiraling into a failed state and civil war in which groups such as al Qaeda would thrive and likely pose a threat to the West again.
(Reporting by Kabul, Islamabad, Geneva and Washington bureaus; Writing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Frances Kerry and Gareth Jones)
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