HANOI – Vice President Kamala Harris said Thursday that the United States would work with its allies to protect women and children in Afghanistan as the Taliban takeover forced them to face worrying historical parallels and draw attention from their original mission distracted on a five day trip to Southeast Asia.
“There is no question that any of us who are vigilant are concerned about this issue in Afghanistan,” said Ms. Harris, referring to the protection of women and children in that country.
The vice president made her comments in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on the final day of her trip to Southeast Asia, an important part of the Biden administration’s strategy of forging partnerships in the region and realigning American foreign policy to compete with China’s growing influence.
For Ms. Harris, the trip was an opportunity to assert herself on the world stage after her first overseas trip to Central America, which focused on the root causes of migration, received from political backlash against the Biden government’s response to the increasing crossings at the southwestern border .
Ms. Harris faced the great challenge of reassuring her partners in Asia and around the world that despite the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan and the arbitrary evacuations of the United States, the United States can still be a credible ally.
While the Biden government seeks to meet an August 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan, the situation in Kabul has overshadowed a trip focused on public health, supply chain issues and economic partnerships.
In Singapore, whether at her meeting with city-state leaders or during her orchid tour after a high-level foreign policy speech, Ms. Harris kept asking questions about withdrawal, the future of human rights in Afghanistan, and the fate of those who had risked their lives to help American troops in the 20 Years War.
The pressure didn’t ease in Hanoi – especially after the world saw pictures of desperate Afghans charging behind US military planes, comparing it to the evacuation of the United States from Vietnam in 1975.
On Thursday, Ms. Harris did not directly answer a question whether the Americans are safer now than they were before they left Afghanistan. Instead, she extolled the government’s evacuation efforts, which have increased rapidly in recent days.
Biden government officials said they had evacuated tens of thousands of people since August 14, the day before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Most Americans have flown out although tens of thousands of Afghan allies will almost certainly be left behind after August 31.
Aug 28, 2021, 7:25 p.m. ET
During her trip, Ms. Harris upheld her message, stressing that the government’s “uniquely” focus was on evacuating the remaining American citizens and Afghan allies.
Her flight to Hanoi from Singapore on Tuesday was delayed by three hours because the US Embassy in Vietnam described a possible “abnormal health incident”. This is the language the Biden government uses to refer to what is known as Havana Syndrome – the unexplained headache, dizziness and memory loss reported by numerous State Department officials, CIA officials and their families in various countries. When asked about the report, Ms. Harris only said that the officers are investigating him.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who for years have been on the run, in hiding, in prison and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to rule, including whether they will be as tolerant as they say they are.
What is happening to the women of Afghanistan? When the Taliban was last in power, they banned women and girls from most jobs or from going to school. Afghan women have gained a lot since the Taliban was overthrown, but now they fear that they are losing ground. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are indications that they have begun to reintroduce the old order in at least some areas.
Ms. Harris used the trip to Southeast Asia not only to forge partnerships on climate change, cybersecurity and pandemic, but also to make her most outspoken comments to date on Beijing.
Both Beijing and Washington have recognized Southeast Asia as a region of economic and geopolitical importance. Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all accused China of building and fortifying artificial islands in the South China Sea and of sending ships to intimidate their military and fishermen.
On Wednesday, Ms. Harris offered to send aircraft carriers and a Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam in addition to a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines.
“When it comes to Beijing, let me be very clear,” she said. “We welcome fierce competition, we are not looking for conflict, but we will speak out on issues like you, the South China Sea.”
Tension between the United States and China was evident throughout Ms. Harris’ trip – even when she was in the air. Beijing used its delayed flight to Hanoi to send an envoy to a meeting with the Vietnamese prime minister and pledge a donation of two million doses of coronavirus vaccines – double the US donation.
After the meeting, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh declared that his country “is not allying itself with one country to fight another,” according to Vietnamese state media.
“It’s striking,” said Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. Chinese officials, he said, “believe they have the advantage and are trying to make it clear to Southeast Asian counterparts that working with the United States will come at a cost.”