Taliban fighters were on the outskirts of Kabul on Sunday and on the brink of a complete military takeover of Afghanistan, but a spokesman said they had been ordered not to enter the city.
The order came as residents reported seeing insurgents peacefully enter some of Kabul’s outer suburbs.
“The Islamic Emirate instructs all its forces to stand at the gates of Kabul, not to try to enter the city,” a spokesman for the Taliban tweeted.
The announcement came hours after the Taliban captured the key eastern city of Jalalabad and the northern anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif – extending an astonishing rout of government forces and warlord militias achieved in just 10 days.
Pro-Taliban social media accounts boasted that its fighters were moving rapidly through the outlying districts of Kabul province, with the outskirts of the city in close proximity.
“Don’t panic! Kabul is safe!” tweeted Matin Bek, President Ashraf Ghani’s chief of staff.
Ghani’s government appeared to be left with few options – either prepare for a bloody fight for the capital or capitulate.
The loss of Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad were huge back-to-back blows for Ghani and his government.
It left the Taliban – who have fighters less than an hour’s drive from Kabul – holding all the cards in any negotiated surrender of the capital.
On Saturday Ghani sought to project authority with a national address in which he spoke of “re-mobilising” the military while seeking a “political solution” to the crisis.
The scale and speed of their advance have shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the insurgents in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of an additional 1,000 US troops to help secure the emergency evacuation from Kabul of embassy employees and thousands of Afghans who worked for American forces and now fear Taliban reprisals.
That was on top of the 3,000 American soldiers deployed in recent days, and 1,000 left in-country after Biden announced in May that the final withdrawal of the 20-year military presence in Afghanistan would be completed by Sept 11.
That decision has come under increased scrutiny given the collapse of the Afghan armed forces, but he insisted Saturday there was no choice.
“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,” Biden said.
Videos posted on pro-Taliban social media accounts showed the group’s heavily armed fighters in cities across the country, waving white flags and greeting locals.
Most of the fighters appeared young, suggesting they were most likely infants or unborn when the Taliban was toppled from power in 2001 by the US and their warlord allies.
In Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban fighters quickly took charge.
“They are parading on their vehicles and motorbikes, firing into the air in celebration,” said Atiqullah Ghayor, who lives near the city’s famed blue mosque.
Warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor, who had led a militia resistance in the city to support government forces, had fled to Uzbekistan, about 30 kilometres to the north, an aide to Noor said.
As the Taliban closed in on the capital, panicked residents swarmed banks for a second-straight day, hoping to withdraw their savings.
Many were already resigned to the Taliban taking power.
“My only wish is that their return leads to peace. That is all we want,” said Kabul shopkeeper Tariq Nezami.
In his first address to the nation since the Taliban launched their sweeping offensive, Ghani said he wanted to stop the violence, but offered few specifics on what his administration was planning.
The presidential palace later said: “A delegation with authority should soon be appointed by the government and be ready for negotiation.”
The palace offered no further details about their path forward.
“Any prospect of fighting within Kabul city itself would precipitate a major humanitarian catastrophe,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, consultant with the Crisis Group, adding that pressure is liking mounting on the leader to resign.
For the tens of thousands who have sought refuge in Kabul in recent weeks, the overwhelming mood was one of apprehension and fear.
One doctor who arrived in the capital with his 35-strong family from Kunduz said he planned to return today.
“I am worried there will be a lot of fighting here. I would rather return home, where I know it has stopped,” he told AFP, asking not to be named.