Collapse accelerates further: Another four provincial capitals fall to the Taliban; UPDATE: Embassy situation "more dire" than State admits

At this rate, the Taliban might have Kabul encircled by next week. Four more provincial capitals fell today, including Lashkar Gah in Helmand, which the Afghan central government had hoped to protect by sacrificing Zaranj just one week ago. The New York Times called that victory “symbolic” for the Taliban, but it proved to be more prophetic than symbolic.

To wit — the Taliban has seized half of all the provincial capitals in Afghanistan in the past week since that “symbolic” victory:

The Taliban completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling Kabul, just weeks before the U.S. is set to officially end its two-decade war.

The latest significant blow was the loss of the capital of Helmand province, where American, British and allied NATO forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in the past 20 years. Hundreds of foreign troops were killed in the province, which is also a major opium hub.

The insurgents have taken half of the country’s 34 provincial capitals in recent days, including its second- and third-largest cities, Herat and Kandahar. The Taliban now control more than two-thirds of the country just weeks before the U.S. plans to withdraw its last troops.

The fall of Helmand might be “symbolic” for NATO. The rapid collapse of their hard-won gains in stabilizing the province might reflect the ephemeral nature of any improvements created by outside forces in a region that belongs more to the seventh century than the 21st. It might also reflect the impact that our sudden bug-out has had on the native military forces we created to maintain that stability, or at least a combination of the two.

The Taliban are getting closer to Kabul, too:

On Friday, Fazel Haq Ehsan, head of the provincial council in the western Ghor province, said the Taliban had entered the capital of Feroz Koh and that there was fighting inside the city.

The Taliban also claimed to have captured Qala-e Naw, capital of the western Badghis province, though there was no official confirmation.

The insurgents also are on the move in Logar province, just south of Kabul, where they claim to have seized the police headquarters in the provincial capital of Puli-e Alim as well as a nearby prison.

According to the latest US military intelligence assessment, Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days — and the Taliban could gain full control of the war-torn country within a few months.

The military keeps surrendering rather than fighting, and that has had an impact not just on the Afghan military but also on the Taliban. With every prison they access, they also add significant numbers to their marauding army. The big question now is whether falling back to Kabul would even mean anything:

As the Taliban expands its control across the country, fears are growing among Afghans that surrender deals made with the Taliban will only fuel the militants’ advances. Many districts and a handful of provincial capitals fell to the fighters with little to no resistance in the weeks before the forces began taking urban areas.

It won’t take 30 days to get to Kabul at this rate, and it won’t take three months for Kabul to fall. It could only take as long as the time to drive a truck from Lashkar Gah to the capital for the Taliban to make their way to the capital, and less time than that for the Afghan military to make its final capitulation. By the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the mullahs will almost certainly be back in charge in Kabul. The question will be how many of the people who trusted us we can get out before then. Get the helicopters ready.

Update: At least we have the leadership in place to deal with — ah, what the hell …

Update: Maybe it won’t even be a week before Kabul falls. NPR’s Tom Bowman reports that the situation is a lot worse than the State Department is admitting: