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U.S. is focused on evacuating Americans, Afghan allies 

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.

Read more on the developments in Afghanistan:

The Biden administration is facing mounting criticism over its handling of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The country plunged into chaos last week after 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.

James Crabtree, executive director for the Asia program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNBC that Harris’ trip is an attempt to reassure allies and partners in Southeast Asia that the Biden administration has not forgotten about them.

“While I don’t think she’s going to get a lot of tough questions about it, it’s going to be hanging in the background of everybody’s minds,” Crabtree said Monday on CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” before the press conference.

“What does this mean about American reliability in this region given so many people are asking questions about America’s reliability in central Asia?” he said.

The vice president arrived in Singapore on Sunday for her first official visit to Southeast Asia. The region is home to some 660 million people and a number of fast-growing economies including Vietnam, which she is set to visit on Tuesday before departing the region Thursday. Her visit comes as tensions between the U.S. and China continue to rise.

Southeast Asia 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.

‘Extremely difficult’ situation for Biden

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. He said that will determine how countries perceive the United States’ global priorities and strategic intentions.

“The United States is a global leader. We take that role seriously, understanding that we have many interests and priorities around the world,” Harris said, emphasizing she was in Singapore to reaffirm Washington’s enduring relationships.

“I’m here in Singapore as a reaffirmation of our commitment to our membership in the Indo-Pacific region, our longstanding partnerships with Southeast Asia and a longstanding relationship with Singapore as it relates to our issues and our mutual issues on security and economic strength and development and now increasingly global health,” she said.

The U.S. and Singapore also announced several partnerships in the works intended to strengthen bilateral and regional collaboration in trade and investment, climate, environmental governance, sustainable development as well as cybersecurity.

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