Singapore leader questions US reliability in wake of Afghan withdrawal


Singapore’s prime minister warned Vice President Kamala Harris Monday that the rest of the world will be watching closely to see what the US does next on the world stage following its chaotic retreat from Afghanistan.

During a joint news conference, Lee Hsien Loong was asked by Reuters reporter Nandita Bose whether the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban earlier this month had altered “the credibility of America’s foreign policy promises”.

Lee, a former brigadier general in Singapore’s armed forces, answered that “what will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be what the US does going forward, how it repositions itself in the region, how it engages its broad range of friends and partners and allies in the region, and how it continues the fight against terrorism.

“Countries make calculations and take positions, and they have to make recalculations and adjust their positions from time to time,” Lee went on. “Sometimes, it can be done smoothly. Sometimes, there are hiccups. Sometimes, things go awry and take time to put right.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong holding a news conference in Singapore on August 23, 2021.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool

Earlier in the presser, Lee said he had told Harris during their one-on-one meeting that “we understand” President Joe Biden’s rationale for withdrawing all US combat forces from Afghanistan by Aug. 31. He added that Singapore was “grateful” for the US-led NATO intervention that prevented terror groups “from using Afghanistan as a safe base for 20 years.”

“We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism again,” the prime minister added. “And post-Afghanistan in the longer term, what matters is how the US repositions itself in the Asia-Pacific [region], engages the broader region and continues the fight against terrorism, because that will determine the perceptions of the countries, of the US global priorities, and of its strategic intentions.”

Lee went on to offer the use of the Singapore Air Force’s transport aircraft to help with evacuation flights from Hamid Karzai International Airport outside Kabul.

Prime Minister Loong claimed "what the US does going forward" will influence other countries.
Prime Minister Loong claimed “what the US does going forward” will influence other countries.
Photo by EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Harris, for her part, repeatedly declined to engage questions about what she felt should have been done differently.

“I think there’s going to be plenty of time to analyze what has happened and what has taken place in the context of the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” she said. “But right now, we are singularly focused on evacuating American citizens, Afghans who worked with us, and Afghans who are vulnerable, including women and children, and that is our singular focus at this time.”

Harris had been criticized for going through with her trip to Singapore and Vietnam amid the ongoing tragedy of the Afghanistan evacuation, which has seen thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies stuck in Taliban-controlled territory as the Islamic fundamentalists seek to take their revenge after 20 years out of power.

A Taliban leader putting a flag up on his vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 20, 2021.
A Taliban leader putting a flag up on his vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 20, 2021.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

Meanwhile, thousands more have braved assaults from Taliban fighters at strategically-placed checkpoints to get to the airport.

That criticism grew louder after Harris responded to a question about Afghanistan by laughing and telling reporters to “slow down” after she landed in Singapore over the weekend.

Harris said Monday that she had gone ahead to Southeast Asia to show “the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously, understanding that we have many interests and priorities around the world.”

“I am here in Singapore as a reaffirmation of our commitment to our membership in the Indo-Pacific region, our long-standing partnerships with Southeast Asia, and a long-standing relationship with Singapore … based on our shared priorities and our shared vision, of not only the challenges we face, but the future and the potential, based on the opportunities that this moment also presents,” the VP added.

The botched Afghanistan withdrawal has raised questions among US allies about how the administration will respond to the growing military threat of China, which has sought to increase its territorial footprint in the South China Sea in recent years at the expense of US-aligned nations like Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei as well as Vietnam — where Harris is scheduled to travel Tuesday.

Before she departs Singapore, Harris will deliver a speech outlining the Biden administration’s vision for the region. In an apparent preview, Harris told American sailors at Singapore’s Changi naval base Monday that “I do believe a big part of the history of the 21st century will be written about this very region where you now serve. And we want to be the ones who are helping to shape and dictate that history.”

With Post wires

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