Taliban militants seized three of Afghanistan's major cities and a slew of provincial capitals by Friday with their week-long onslaught of victories showing no sign of letting up as the fate of the capital, Kabul, became a top concern.
Feruz Koh, with a little over 132,000 residents, was the latest provincial capital to fall into Taliban hands on Friday, with the city centre abandoned by local officials and security forces in the morning.
The Taliban now control all the government buildings in the city, according to local councilor Fazel-ul Haq Ehsan and a member of parliament representing the province, Fatima Kohistani.
After a stunning blitz across the country, 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals have been captured in a matter of days.
In the past day, the Taliban secured the culturally and commercially important western city of Herat; the country's second-largest city Kandahar; and Lashkargah, the capital of south-western Helmand province, the largest province in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have been battering parts of the cities for months, but the situation finally became untenable for overextended and demoralized government forces.
Security began to deteriorate as the pace of withdrawal among US and NATO forces picked up in recent weeks.
Governments around the world were hoping for a political solution to stem the fighting.
The Gulf emirate Qatar, which has hosted intra-Afghan political talks, published a statement on Friday in which 13 envoys - including from the European Union and the United Nations - called on the Taliban to immediately stop to attacks against urban areas.
The statement further reads that these stakeholder countries and organizations have also stressed the need for the long-stalled peace process between the Taliban and Afghan government be accelerated especially as the toll on civilians mount.
No negotiation with Ghani
Pakistani media reported that Prime Minister Imran Khan said the Taliban informed him that as long as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is in power, the militant group will not negotiate with the government.
Ghani in the past has said he would hand over power only to a democratically-elected successor.
In the face of growing Taliban influence and control over cities, the US ordered a partial evacuation of diplomatic staff from Afghanistan, with US troops temporarily heading back to Kabul to help with embassy evacuations amid worries about the security situation in the Afghan capital.
"It is not a full evacuation. Right now, the embassy remains open, we will continue to have a diplomatic presence on the ground," US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told a news conference.
Britain's PA news agency said around 600 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan to help British nationals leave the country.
Special forces troops are on standby to help evacuate Canada's embassy in Kabul, CBC News reported, citing a defence source.
Many countries have advised their citizens to immediately leave Afghanistan on the commercial flights operating from Kabul.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they spoke with Ghani to stress Washington remains invested in the stability of Afghanistan, even as it looks to have almost all troops out of the country by month's end and a reduced diplomatic presence.