KABUL -- Hundreds of Afghan forces surrendered Wednesday to the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, the military's most significant single collapse since the withdrawal of U.S. forces triggered a wave of territorial gains for the militants.
After holding out for days at a military base on the edge of Kunduz, an entire Afghan army corps surrendered to Taliban fighters Wednesday morning, handing over valuable equipment -- much of it American, according to two Afghan officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
With pressure on the government growing, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rushed to Balkh province, already surrounded by Taliban-held territory, to seek help from warlords, many linked to allegations of atrocities and corruption, in pushing back the insurgents. He also replaced his army chief of staff.
While the capital, Kabul, itself has not been directly threatened in the advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain the control of the slivers of the country it has left.
The surrender essentially ceded the last island of government control in Kunduz to the Taliban. The group overran much of the provincial capital over the weekend, one advance amid days of sweeping gains by the fighters across northern and western Afghanistan. The Taliban has now pushed into nine provincial capitals. On Tuesday alone, three towns were overrun by the group.
"The Taliban are at the gate, but no one is fighting. I don't understand," said one of the Afghan officers, recounting the conversation he had with a member of his unit who was at the Kunduz base when the Taliban began to push closer. "Brother, if no one else fights, why should I fight?" was the reply.
Moments after the conversation, the soldier changed into civilian clothing and fled into the city, the officer said. That was before he knew a deal had been in the works between the Taliban and some of the base's commanders.
In the days leading up to the mass surrender in Kunduz, elders had visited the base near the city's airport and asked commanders there to surrender to the Taliban, which pledged not to harm them, said Zargul Alemi, a member of the Kunduz provincial council who fled the province before the surrender. Alemi said that after some commanders accepted the surrender deal, along with a fraction of soldiers at the base, the rest of the forces retreated to a nearby mountain range.
Alemi estimated that as many as 2,000 Afghan troops were at the base at the time of the surrender and desertions. The Afghan army corps stationed there -- one of seven in the entire country -- was responsible for the northern region.
"I don't know why the commanders did not gather their forces and fight until the last drop of their blood, with all the guns, resources and ammunition they had in the airport and the corps," Alemi said.
It wasn't immediately clear what equipment was left behind for the insurgents, though a Taliban video showed them parading in Humvees and pickups. Another video showed fighters on the airport's tarmac next to an attack helicopter without rotor blades.
The two Afghan officers said that those who surrendered were escorted by the Taliban to a nearby district, where they were offered protection as long as they did not leave Kunduz province.
3 CAPITALS TOPPLE
Taliban forces are in the midst of a military blitz largely focused in northern and western Afghanistan. Tuesday, the militants overran the capitals of Badakhshan in the north, Farah in the west and Baghlan, just a five-hour drive north of Kabul.
In southern Helmand province, where the Taliban control nearly all of the capital of Lashkar Gar, a suicide car bomber targeted the government-held police headquarters, provincial council head Attaullah Afghan said. The building has been under siege for two weeks.
Taliban fighters dragged the shoeless, bloody corpse of one Afghan security force member through the street in Farah, shouting: "God is great!" Taliban fighters carrying M-16 rifles and driving Humvees and Ford pickups donated by the Americans rolled through the streets of the capital.
"We feel betrayed," said Fawzia Yaftali, another Kunduz provincial council member, who accused the government in Kabul of making a deal with the Taliban to hand the militants control of the country's north.
One of the Afghan officers blamed sophisticated Taliban psychological operations for much of the collapse of Afghanistan's military. He said rumors have spread through the Afghan security forces that Kabul has made a deal with the Taliban to hand over control of portions of the country.
The impact on morale has been detrimental, he said. In recent months, desertions have been so common that the number of Afghan military casualties has dropped in half, he said.
"We aren't losing our forces in the fight anymore," the officer said. "They are just changing their clothes and putting their guns down."
Government control has shrunk dramatically, to less than a third of the country's territory. The U.S. is continuing to support Afghan forces with airstrikes, but the withdrawal of foreign troops is set to conclude at the end of August.
In Balkh province, where Ghani visited, warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Mohammad Noor and Mohammad Mohaqiq planned to mobilize forces in support of the Afghan government to push back the Taliban.
Dostum in particular has a troubled past, facing investigations after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion for killing hundreds of Taliban fighters that year by letting them suffocate in sealed shipping containers.
Dostum said Wednesday that the Taliban "won't be able to leave the north and will face the same fate" as the suffocated troops.
Ghani, meanwhile, ordered Gen. Hibatullah Alizai to replace Gen. Wali Ahmadzai as the Afghan army chief of staff, according to an Afghan Defense Ministry official who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the decision had yet to be made public.
Alizai was the commander of the Afghan army's Special Operations Corps -- the elite troops that, along with the air force, have been forced to do most of the fighting as regular forces have collapsed.
PENTAGON ON DEFENSE
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday challenged the view that the U.S. military "fell short over the course of 20 years" in creating a sustainable military in Afghanistan.
"I take exception to the notion that somehow over the course of 20 years we simply failed in trying to improve the competency and capability of Afghan forces when we look at what they're doing today," Kirby said. "It comes down to leadership on the battlefield and leadership in Kabul."
Kirby said that "no one is passing any bucks," and that Pentagon officials are watching what is happening in Afghanistan with great concern. He declined to address whether the speed of the Taliban's rise has prompted discussion in the U.S. government about evacuating personnel this month.
According to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to the media, the Taliban's simultaneous operations to take provincial capitals are also designed to burn out the two key advantages of Afghan forces -- special forces and the Afghan air force.
Afghan attack planes and gunships are flying missions at a breakneck pace, churning through parts and maintenance needs after the departure of U.S. contractors that maintained the aircraft. The Afghan air force has begun flying aircraft to another country to conduct maintenance, officials have said.
PREPARING FOR THE FALL
The Biden administration is preparing for Afghanistan's capital to fall far sooner than feared only weeks ago, as a rapid disintegration of security has prompted the revision of an already stark intelligence assessment predicting Kabul could be overrun within six to 12 months, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
One official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said Tuesday that the U.S. military now assesses a collapse could occur within 90 days. Others said it could happen within a month. Some officials said that although they were not authorized to discuss the assessment, they see the situation in Afghanistan as more dire than it was in June, when intelligence officials assessed a fall could come as soon as six months after the withdrawal of the U.S. military.
"Everything is moving in the wrong direction," said one person familiar with the military's new intelligence assessment.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday insisted that his decision to withdraw U.S. forces is not up for debate, saying that despite the Afghans' weak performance militarily, he did not "regret" his decision to end the 20-year campaign and he is not considering any change of plans in light of the Taliban's gains.
"Look," Biden told reporters at the White House, "we spent over a trillion dollars over 20 years. We trained and equipped, with modern equipment, over 300,000 Afghan forces. And Afghan leaders have to come together."
A Pentagon official, however, said military planners have been working under the assumption for some time that the evacuation of American diplomats and other nonmilitary personnel from Afghanistan could be necessary on short notice, and that some scenarios envision the fall of Kabul within 30 to 90 days.
Information for this article was contributed by Susannah George, Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Alex Horton, Dan Lamothe, John Hudson, Shane Harris, Anne Gearan and Missy Ryan of The Washington Post and by Tameem Akhgar, Jon Gambrell and Robert Burns of The Associated Press.