KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters entered the outskirts of the Afghan capital on Sunday, further tightening their grip on the country as panicked workers fled government offices and helicopters landed at the US Embassy.
Three Afghan officials told The Associated Press that the Taliban were in the districts of Kalakan, Qarabagh and Paghman in the capital. The militants later pledged not to take Kabul “by force” as sporadic gunfire could be heard in the capital.
“No one’s life, property and dignity will be harmed and the lives of the citizens of Kabul will not be at risk,” the Taliban said.
A Taliban spokesman says the militants are “awaiting a peaceful transfer of Kabul city” after they entered the capital’s outskirts.
Suhail Shaheen made the comment to Qatar’s Al-Jazeera English satellite news channel.
He declined to offer specifics on any possible negotiations between his forces and the government.
In a nationwide offensive that has taken just over a week, the Taliban has defeated, co-opted or sent Afghan security forces fleeing from wide swaths of the country, even though they had some air support from the US military.
The lightning speed of the Taliban offensive has shocked many and raised questions about why Afghan forces crumbled despite years of US training and billions of dollars spent. Just days ago, an American military assessment estimated it would be a month before the capital would come under insurgent pressure.
Rapid shuttle flights of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters near the embassy began a few hours later after the militants seized the nearby city of Jalalabad. Diplomatic armored SUVs could be seen leaving the area around the post.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the movements. However, wisps of smoke could be seen near the embassy’s roof as diplomats urgently destroyed sensitive documents, according to two American military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.
Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which typically carry armed troops, later landed near the embassy as well. The US decided a few days ago to send in 3,000 fresh troops to help evacuate some personnel from the US Embassy.
The Czech Republic also approved a plan to begin withdrawing their Afghan staff from their embassy after earlier taking their diplomats to Kabul International Airport.
President Ashraf Ghani, who spoke to the nation Saturday for the first time since the offensive began, appears increasingly isolated as well. Warlords he negotiated with just days earlier have surrendered to the Taliban or fled, leaving Ghani without a military option. Ongoing negotiations in Qatar, the site of a Taliban office, also have failed to stop the insurgents’ advance.
Thousands of civilians now live in parks and open spaces in Kabul itself, fearing the future. Some ATMs stopped distributing cash as hundreds gathered in front of private banks, trying to withdraw their life savings.
Gunfire erupted at several points, though the Afghan presidency sought to downplayed the shooting.
“The defense and security forces along with the international forces working for the security of Kabul city and the situation is under control,” the presidency said amid the chaos.