US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) is welcomed by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) at the Istana in Singapore, on August 23, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | AFP | Getty Images
SINGAPORE — The United States’ primary focus in Afghanistan right now is to evacuate American citizens, Afghan allies and vulnerable groups following the Taliban’s return to power, Vice President Kamala Harris said Monday.
Harris spoke to reporters during a joint press conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong following an earlier meeting where the two leaders discussed a broad range of topics — from supply chain issues to climate change and tackling the global health crisis brought about by the pandemic.
“Right now we are singularly focused on evacuating American citizens, Afghans who worked with us and Afghans who are vulnerable, including women and children,” Harris said, responding to a reporter’s question on U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
“We have a responsibility and we feel a deep commitment to making sure that folks who helped us are safe,” Harris added, saying that there should be a “robust analysis of what happened” later.
The Biden administration is facing mounting criticism over its handling of U.S. withdrawal efforts, which have plunged Afghanistan into chaos as the civilian government collapsed and the Taliban took power. Thousands have flooded to the Kabul airport in hopes of escaping the country.
On Sunday, President Joe Biden said the U.S. has a “long way to go and a lot could still go wrong” in the evacuation from Kabul.
“The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful no matter when it started, when we began,” the president said during a press conference at the White House. He also said that “our hope is that we will not have to extend” the Aug. 31 deadline to exit Afghanistan.
U.S. credibility at stake
The developments in Afghanistan have caused some to question Washington’s commitment to its allies. Analysts have said that Harris’ trip is an attempt to reassure allies and partners in Southeast Asia that the Biden administration has not forgotten about them.
Southeast Asia is home to some 660 million people and a number of fast-growing economies, including Vietnam. It is a strategic region for U.S. interests because of the South China Sea — a crucial commercial shipping route where trillions of dollars of global trade pass through each year. In recent years, China has stepped up its economic and political influence in the region.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee told reporters that the Biden administration inherited an “extremely difficult” situation and that the city-state understands the reasons behind the troop withdrawal.
“The U.S. intervention has stopped terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a safe base for 20 years,” Lee said. “For this, Singapore is grateful.”
“We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism,” he added. The prime minister explained that what matters in the longer term is how the U.S. repositions itself in Asia-Pacific and engages with countries in the region, including on issues like the fight against terrorism.
“Because that will determine the perceptions of the countries, of the U.S. global priorities and of its strategic intentions,” he said.
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