KABUL, Afghanistan – Three large cities in western and southern Afghanistan were confirmed to have fallen to the Taliban as the insurgent race for control of the country accelerated.

The Taliban captured Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, on Friday morning after a week-long battle that left parts of the city to rubble, hospitals full of wounded and dying, and residents asking what would come next under their new rulers. Hours earlier, the insurgents had captured Herat, a cultural center in the west, and Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, where the Taliban first proclaimed their so-called emirate in the 1990s.

The speed of urban collapse, combined with the announcement by American officials Thursday that they would evacuate most of the U.S. embassy, ​​has compounded panic across the country as thousands attempt to flee the Taliban’s advance.

Only three large Afghan cities – including the capital Kabul – remain under state control, one is besieged by the Taliban. With the collapse of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, the Taliban now effectively control southern Afghanistan, a powerful symbol of their resurrection, just weeks before the United States will withdraw completely from the country.

Last week, the Taliban took over Afghan cities in a swift offensive, placing them well-positioned to attack Kabul. The government’s armed forces appear to be on the verge of complete collapse. Some American officials fear that the Afghan government will not hold out for another month.

Helmand Province is an unstable area that has been largely controlled by the Taliban since 2015. In recent months, the Afghan government has struggled to hold its own there, and recent air strikes by the United States and the Afghan Air Forces in the region have failed to halt the Taliban’s offensive.

Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, has been on the brink of disaster for more than a decade. Helmand has long been the home of the Taliban, which after the rise of the group in neighboring Kandahar in 1994 spread into the province and earned millions there from the illegal sale of opium poppies.

The fall of Lashkar Gah is a sad coda for the American and British military missions to Helmand, which together lasted over a decade. Both countries focused much of their efforts on securing the province, losing hundreds of troops there to roadside bombs and brutal shootings.

Kandahar in particular is a huge asset to the Taliban. It is the economic center of southern Afghanistan, and it was the birthplace of the uprisings in the 1990s and served as the militant capital for part of their five-year rule. By conquering the city, the Taliban can effectively proclaim a return to power, if not complete control.

On Friday, officials from Uruzgan and Zabul, two provinces long believed to be the Taliban’s heartland, said local elders in both are negotiating a full surrender of the territory to the insurgent group.

Taimoor Shah in Kandahar contributed to the coverage.