By TAMEEM AKHGAR, RAHIM FAIEZ and JON GAMBRELL
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban captured a strategic provincial capital near Kabul and broke through defensive lines in Afghanistan’s third-largest city Thursday, further squeezing the country’s embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission there.
Seizing Ghazni cuts off a crucial highway linking the Afghan capital with the country’s southern provinces, which similarly find themselves under assault as part of an insurgent push some 20 years after U.S. and NATO troops invaded and ousted the Taliban government. Meanwhile, the assault on the city of Herat, still raging Thursday night, could put nearly all of western Afghanistan under Taliban control just a day after the militants completed their capture of the country’s northeast.
While Kabul itself isn’t directly under threat yet, the loss of Ghazni and the battles elsewhere further tighten the grip of a resurgent Taliban estimated to now hold some two-thirds of the nation. Thousands of people have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban will again impose a brutal, repressive government, all but eliminating women’s rights and conducting public amputations, stonings and executions. Peace talks in Qatar remain stalled, though diplomats met throughout the day.