The administration of President Ashraf Ghani vowed Friday to defend its capital, Kabul, from the Taliban, while efforts by Abdullah Abdullah, head of the country's National Reconciliation Council, to strike a political deal with the group seemed be gaining momentum.
"It was decided with conviction & resolve that we stand firm against Taliban terrorists & do [everything] to strengthen the national resistance by all means and ways. PERIOD," Afghanistan's First Vice President Amrullah Saleh tweeted Friday afternoon.
A senior government official, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the government was bringing its forces from across the country to Kabul and placing special forces in and around the city.
Afghan Special Forces have so far proved the most effective against Taliban, but the 45,000-strong force has been stretched thin thanks to months of near-simultaneous Taliban offensives in multiple parts of the country.
By Friday evening, the Taliban claimed to control 18 out of 34 provincial capitals in the country, claims the government did not deny.
Other than the vice president's tweet, the government in Kabul seemed conspicuously absent from public view as a steady stream of news of Taliban advances dominated the news and social media. Calls to government spokespeople went unanswered. WhatsApp messages went undelivered or unchecked.
"The Afghan government and senior officials from President Ghani to his chief advisers, his vice president, top spokespeople, have gone largely silent, and that's been true in the past week, not just since the larger cities of Herat and Kandahar have fallen," said Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group, who watches Afghanistan closely.
Meanwhile, Abdullah returned to Kabul to meet with the president. The head of High Council for National Reconciliation had been in Doha, Qatar, since Tuesday to meet with the troika-plus: United States, China, Russia and Pakistan, as well as Taliban who have maintained a political office there for years.
"Dr. Abdullah came from Doha to Kabul in an emergency flight. He brought a proposal for a political deal to share with Ghani. They met for hours," said Najibullah Azad, a former spokesman of Ghani's.
Azad said Abdullah was expected to fly back to Doha either Friday night or Saturday morning to discuss Ghani's decision with the Taliban.
Rumors circulated in Kabul on WhatsApp and Twitter and in some local media of a political deal that envisaged a Ghani resignation in return for the Taliban announcing a six-month cease-fire and not storming Kabul.
A day earlier, Ghani had told a group of young Afghans in the presidential palace that he would only step down once his successor had been elected.
"Some, particularly our neighbors, say if there is no Ashraf Ghani, everything will be OK and peace will return," Ghani said. "My question and the question of millions of Afghans is: Who would be my successor, and will he be appointed?"
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a Reuters interview earlier this week that Taliban leaders had told him they would talk to the Afghan government only once Ghani was gone.
By Friday evening, Taliban sources released an audio conversation between Taliban leader Amir Khan Muttaqi and Ismail Khan of Herat.
Khan was credited with helping repel the first Taliban attack on Herat last month when the 75-year-old picked up a Kalashnikov and led his men into battle. After Herat fell to the Taliban on Thursday, the militants captured and then released Khan, claiming he had joined the group.
In the audio, the Taliban leader asked Khan to bring others into the fold.
"People are suffering for 20 years, and they can join us, and we can solve our problems internally," Muttaqi told Khan. "We shouldn't give foreigners a reason to return."
Khan said he would talk to others but insisted the country needed a system that worked for everyone.
"There should be social justice," Khan told the Taliban leader, who seemed to agree.
While political wheeling and dealing continued behind the scenes, on the streets, the mood was tense.
"It is very scary. We are all worried about a Taliban attack on the city. We have no idea of our future," Kabul resident Hikmatullah Wafa told VOA.
Another resident, Rahmanullah Sahil, seemed more upbeat.
"We have hope. We heard about a political deal. People want a political settlement or else the situation will be really bad," he said.
Afghans who had visas and could afford to leave the country were not waiting for a deal.
Airfares out of Kabul rose multifold as demand soared. A one-way ticket to neighboring Pakistan, normally less than $200, was selling for $750, and all next week's flights were sold out.
Watkins said Ghani's apparent efforts to portray calm and normalcy — he talked about technical and bureaucratic reforms in recent speeches — backfired.
"What that has done is amplify the concerns and fears that the government does not have a plan to deal with the situation on the ground," he said. "And that potentially the government was not even fully aware of the situation on the ground until it was too late."
Rahim Gul Sarwan contributed to this report.