The Taliban have captured another three provincial capitals in southern Afghanistan as the insurgents press a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling the capital Kabul.
The loss of Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, comes after years of toil and blood spilled by American, British and NATO forces. Hundreds of foreign troops were killed there over the course of the nearly two-decade war.
The insurgents have taken more than a dozen of the country's 34 provincial capitals in recent days and now control more than two-thirds of the country, weeks before the US plans to withdraw its last troops.
The Taliban captured Lashkar Gah following heavy fighting and raised their white flag over governmental installations, although three national army bases outside Lashkar Gah remain under government control.
The provincial capital of Zabul province, Qalat, and Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province, have also fallen to the Taliban.
The latest advances came hours after the insurgents captured the country's second and third largest cities in a lightning advance.
The capture of Kandahar and Herat represent the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have been waging a week-long blitz.
While Kabul itself is not directly under threat yet, the losses and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban, who are estimated to now hold more than two-thirds of the country and continue to press their offensive.
With security rapidly deteriorating, the United States planned to send in 3,000 troops to help evacuate some personnel from the US Embassy in Kabul.
Separately, Britain said some 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving the country, while Canada is sending special forces to help evacuate its embassy.
Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women's rights and conducting public executions.
Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, although diplomats are still meeting.
Fazel Haq Ehsan, chief of the provincial council in the western Ghor province, said on Friday that the Taliban had entered Feroz Koh, the provincial capital, and that fighting was continuing in the city.
The Taliban also claimed to have captured Qala-e Naw, capital of the western Badghis province. There was no official confirmation.
The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that, if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a few months.
The Afghan government may be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities in the coming days if the Taliban maintain momentum.
The onslaught represents a stunning collapse of Afghan forces after the US spent nearly two decades and $830bn (£600bn) trying to establish a functioning state after toppling the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The advancing Taliban ride on American-made Humvees and carry M-16s pilfered from Afghan forces.
Watch: US President Biden on Afghan forces' battle against Taliban.
Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to repeated questions from journalists, instead issuing video communiqués that downplay the Taliban advance.
Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said the Afghan army had rotted from within due to corruption and mismanagement, leaving troops in the field poorly equipped and with little motivation to fight.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have spent a decade taking control of large areas of the countryside, positioning themselves to rapidly seize key infrastructure and urban areas once President Joe Biden announced the US withdrawal.
The difficulty of moving troops out to the provinces means the government is likely to focus all its efforts on defending the capital.
In Herat, Taliban fighters rushed past the Great Mosque in the historic city — a structure that dates to 500 BC and was once a spoil of Alexander the Great — and seized government buildings.
Witnesses described hearing sporadic gunfire at one government building while the rest of the city fell silent under the insurgents' control.
Herat had been under militant attack for two weeks, with one wave blunted by the arrival of warlord Ismail Khan and his forces. But on Thursday afternoon, Taliban fighters broke through the city's defensive lines and later said they were in control.
Cover image: Library photo of Herat, Afghanistan (Picture: Torsten Pursche/Alamy Stock Photo).