Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flew to the besieged northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif Wednesday to rally his beleaguered forces, with Taliban fighters having now taken more than a quarter of the country’s provincial capitals in less than a week. His visit was immediately overshadowed by the mass surrender of hundreds of Afghan soldiers in nearby Kunduz, along with the overnight capture of another provincial capital — the ninth city to be overrun since Friday. One army officer who asked not to be identified said they had endured withering mortar fire at Kunduz airport, and were left with no choice but to surrender. “There was no way to fight back,” he told AFP. “My unit, with 20 soldiers, three humvees and four pick-up trucks just surrendered. We are now all waiting to get our pardon letter. There is a big queue.” In Mazar, Ghani held talks with long-time local strongman Atta Mohammad Noor and infamous warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum about the defence of the city, as Taliban fighters inched closer to its outskirts. The loss of Mazar would be a catastrophic blow to the Kabul government and represent the complete collapse of its control over the north — long a bastion of anti-Taliban militias. Hours before Ghani arrived, pictures posted on official government social media accounts showed Dostum boarding a plane in Kabul en route to Mazar, along with a contingent of commandos. After arriving in the city, Dostum issued a warning to the approaching Taliban. “The Taliban never learn from the past,” he told reporters, vowing to kill the jihadists. “The Taliban have come to the north several times but they were always trapped. It is not easy for them to get out.” Dostum stands accused of massacring hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban prisoners of war during the US-backed operations in 2001 that toppled the hardline Islamists’ rule over the country. Fighting in Afghanistan’s long-running conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when the US-led military coalition began the final stage of a withdrawal set to be completed before the end of the month. Further to the east of Mazar, in Badakhshan province’s capital Faizabad, a local lawmaker told AFP that security forces had retreated after days of heavy clashes. “The Taliban have captured the city now,” said Zabihullah Attiq, confirming the latest city to fall. Kunduz remains the Taliban’s largest prize to date, with the mass surrender at the airport making a potential counterattack to retake the provincial capital highly unlikely for the time being.