Afghanistan fallout engulfs Harris’ first day of Southeast Asia trip

(CNN)Vice President Kamala Harris, undertaking a suddenly high-stakes visit to Southeast Asia this week amid the first major foreign policy crisis of the Biden administration, was on the receiving end of questions Monday about the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan for the first time since the chaotic fall of Kabul.

Harris’ stops in Singapore and Vietnam have assumed outsized importance for their potential to reassure foreign leaders of the United States’ continued commitment to its allies. Particularly in Vietnam where Harris heads Tuesday — as images of the 1975 fall of Saigon have stirred comparisons to evacuations in Kabul — the vice president will work to maintain her focus on Asia, a region President Joe Biden wants to prioritize as he ends 9/11-era conflicts.

Yet on Monday, reporters beamed in on a monitor from another room to pepper Harris on the tumultuous Afghanistan exit as she stood alongside Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon in a joint press conference after their first bilateral meeting, providing a first look at how the vice president is approaching the unfolding crisis.

“There’s no question there will be, and should be, a robust analysis of what has happened,” Harris said, as she sidestepped answering whether she was personally satisfied with the operational steps being taken during the US withdrawal. Officials separated reporters traveling with the vice president from the politicians because of Singapore’s Covid-19 restrictions.

Harris said in April she was among the last advisers Biden consulted before making his decision to end the Afghanistan war, and she has joined the multitude of briefings he’s received on the matter over the past week. Her advisers had faced questions ahead of her trip about whether the tumultuous end to the 20-year war would undermine her message to leaders in Asia about America’s commitments abroad.

There had already been some questions about Biden’s attention to southeast Asia; he hasn’t spoken directly to a leader from the region since taking office. Part of the reason he’s explained for ending the Afghanistan war is a desire to shift focus to modern-day issues, like countering China’s rise.

On Monday, even as Harris sought to project the administration’s focus on bolstering its influence in Asia, she still faced questions about the Afghanistan crisis.

    “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 added. She also defended President Joe Biden, saying he’d shown “great emotion” over the images coming out of Afghanistan.

    Responding to the Afghanistan crisis while on foreign soil is part of the steep challenge Harris faces this week as she travels to Singapore and Vietnam, as the once-low-risk trip to friendly nations comes at the same time as a chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    Political experts, and even her own allies, say Harris faces enhanced pressure to fulfill dual responsibilities largely unfamiliar to her in the seven months she’s been in office: Deliver a foreign policy win for an administration in crisis and embody Biden’s call to pivot US focus abroad to counter a rising China.

    “It’s going to be a real sticking point for her to exude that America is here and we’re committed to the things that we say we’re committed to,” a source close to Harris told CNN last week.

    Harris’ comments on Monday echoed Biden’s statements in previous days, saying that the time for reflection and criticism will come later as the focus remains on the dangerous mission of evacuating tens of thousands from the now-Taliban-controlled city. But that notion has not stopped the barrage of questions over the administration’s competency and who is to blame for the collapse in Kabul.

    “The reason I’m here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously, understanding that we have many interests and priorities around the world,” Harris said Monday. “I am here in Singapore as a reaffirmation of our commitment to our membership in the Indo-Pacific region.”

    Monday agreements

    Following Harris’ meeting with Lee, the White House announced several initiatives with the Singapore government aimed at “strengthening and deepening” the administrations’ partnerships in Southeast Asia. The agreements focus on easing supply chain issues compounded by the pandemic, combating cybersecurity threats, addressing climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Harris and Lee will launch the US-Singapore Dialogue on Supply Chain, according to a fact sheet provided from her office, which would be a “high level dialogue on enhancing cooperative efforts to promote greater supply chain resilience.’ CNN reported Friday that trade would factor into the theme of global competition on the vice president’s trip, as the US grapples with the global microchip shortage

    On cybersecurity, the pair announced they’ve finalized “three agreements that will expand cybersecurity cooperation with respect to the financial sector, military-to-military engagement, and regional capacity-building.’

    And the US and Singapore say they will track Covid-19 variants together more closely as well as partners in research for treatments, among other agreements on defense issues.

    Afterward, the vice president received a briefing from Singaporean defense officials on the US-Singapore defense relationship at the Changi Naval Base before addressing US sailors aboard the USS Tulsa.

    She thanked troops for their efforts in Afghanistan, as discussions are underway about the potential for remaining in Kabul beyond the August 31 deadline to exit the country so US troops can finish the evacuation effort.

    “The men and women who have served in Afghanistan — including some who are here today, and I have read about your service — and those who are serving there right now, I just want to say we are all grateful to the men and women in uniform and the embassy staff on the ground who are bringing safety to Americans and the Afghans who worked side by side with us and to other Afghans at risk,” Harris said.

    “And they’re doing this mission in an incredibly challenging and dangerous environment, and the President and I are thankful for their service.”

    Then Harris turned back at the task at hand, deepening the relationship in the Indo-Pacific, a region she called “critical” to the United State’ security.

    Biden has centered his domestic economic policy agenda around beefing up the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing ability to compete with China, making it no secret he intends to fight the battles of the “next 20 years,” instead of the last, a part of his reason for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

    “At the same time, other missions continue all around the world. So, you all are here in Singapore — and Southeast Asia, and the Indo Pacific — with a mission of your own, a mission that is vital to the American people,” Harris said to US sailors after touring the combat ship USS Tulsa. “The Indo-Pacific is critical to the security and prosperity of the United States.”

      The vice president is scheduled to give remarks Tuesday in Singapore laying out the administration’s vision for the region, a White House official said, focused on security, economic partnerships, and global health.

      “The Vice President will discuss a theme she has discussed many times before — she believes we are embarking on a new era. Our world is more interconnected and interdependent than ever before, therefore, the only way to move forward is together,” the official .

      CNN’s kevin Liptak, Sophie Jeong, Chandler Thornton and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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