The Taliban claimed on Friday to be in control of 85% of Afghanistan after seizing key border crossings with Iran and Turkmenistan following a sweeping offensive launched as U.S. troops pulled out of the war-torn nation.
Hours after President Joe Biden issued a staunch defence of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban said its fighters had seized two vital border crossings in western Afghanistan -- completing an arc of territory from the Iranian border to the frontier with China.
In Moscow, a visiting delegation of Taliban officials said they controlled about 250 of Afghanistan's 398 districts -- a claim impossible to independently verify and disputed by the government.
Separately, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP their fighters had captured the border town of Islam Qala on the Iranian frontier and the Torghundi crossing with Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan's interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian said efforts were under way to dislodge the insurgents from their positions.
Hours earlier, Mr. Biden said the U.S. military mission would end on August 31 -- nearly 20 years after it began -- having "achieved" its goals. But he admitted it was "highly unlikely" Kabul would be able to control the entire country.
"The status quo is not an option," Biden said of staying in the country. "I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan."
With the Taliban having routed much of northern Afghanistan in recent weeks, the government holds little more than a constellation of provincial capitals that must be largely reinforced and resupplied by air.
The air force was under severe strain even before the Taliban's lightning offensive overwhelmed the government's northern and western positions, putting further pressure on the country's limited aircraft and pilots.
Mr. Biden said the Afghan people alone should determine their future, but he acknowledged the uncertainty about what that would look like. Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the president said: "No, it is not."
But, he admitted, "the likelihood there is going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely".
U.S. exit 'positive step'
The Taliban, for their part, welcomed Biden's statement.
"Any day or hour that U.S. and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step," spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP.
Afghan commandos clashed with the insurgents this week in a provincial capital, with thousands of people fleeing Qala-i-Naw in northwest Badghis province.
On Friday the Afghan defence ministry said government forces had "full control" of the city. "(The Taliban) were being hit by air strikes as they were retreating from the city," Badghis provincial council chief Abdul Aziz Bek told AFP.
"They have retreated from the city and the fighting has stopped inside for now."
President Ashraf Ghani said the government could handle the situation, but admitted difficulties lay ahead.
"What we are witnessing is one of the most complicated stages of the transition," he said in a speech in Kabul on Thursday. As the Afghan military struggled to hold their ground against the Taliban, the country's leadership also appeared to be enveloped in chaos.
In a leaked audio call published on social media, Vice President Amrullah Saleh could be heard issuing a death threat to a parliamentarian after accusing the official of encouraging security forces to surrender to the Taliban in Badghis.
The Taliban have been emboldened by the troop withdrawal and -- with peace talks in Doha deadlocked -- appear to be pressing for a full military victory.
Still, on Thursday, Shaheen, who is also a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, insisted the insurgents were seeking a "negotiated settlement".
"We do not believe in monopoly of power," he said.
In Moscow, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Taliban controlled about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border as a delegation from the insurgents wound up a visit.
About "85% of Afghanistan's territory" was under the group's control, said Taliban delegate Shahabuddin Delawar, who added that the group was committed to preventing other jihadists from using Afghanistan as a base for their operations.
This week more than 1,000 Afghan troops fled into Tajikistan in the face of a Taliban onslaught.
The Kabul government has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban's gains as having little strategic value, but the seizure of multiple border crossings along with mineral-rich areas will likely fill the group's coffers with several sources of new revenue.