Vice President Harris heads to Singapore and Vietnam this week on her second foreign trip since taking office, looking to strengthen relations with partners in China’s darkening shadow and help prepare the region to fight future pandemics.
But while Harris brings a message that the United States is committed to the Indo-Pacific, the humiliating debacle in Afghanistan has America’s friends and foes alike questioning Washington’s ability and will to sustain those kinds of engagements.
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the trip was proceeding as planned and Harris would be continually briefed on the situation in Afghanistan while abroad and join deliberations on next steps.
“Given our global leadership role, we can and we must manage developments in one region while simultaneously advancing our strategic interests in other regions on other issues,” the official said. “The United States has many interests around the world, and we are well-equipped to pursue them all at the same time.”
The vice president leaves Washington on Friday and arrives Sunday in Singapore, where she will deliver what aides are calling a major speech laying out the future of the U.S. relationship with a region increasingly under pressure from Beijing.
It’s likely to echo her late-May commencement speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, when she highlighted how the pandemic, cyberattacks and climate change challenged a world increasingly interconnected, interdependent and fragile.
“We see this on a day-to-day basis, just how much events in one part of the world can affect us here in the United States,” a senior administration official said on the condition of anonymity.
Harris will be the first sitting U.S. vice president to visit Vietnam when she arrives on Aug. 24.
While there, she will meet virtually with health ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and herald the launch of a regional office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Harris has “been pushing, even as we work to solve this pandemic, to get ready, get the world ready, to deal with the next one,” a second senior U.S. official said, also on the condition of anonymity.
The vice president will be the most senior U.S. official to visit the region since Biden took office promising to shore up alliances, in part to serve as a counterweight to Beijing.
“You don’t have to take a super-blunt approach to dealing with China issues when you are in places like Southeast Asia,” the second senior U.S. official said. “Showing up, focusing on the work that needs to be done, building a strong partnership with really crucial countries like Singapore and Vietnam, those things in themselves speak volumes.”
Trade issues will also loom large on the vice president’s trip, not just because of Chinese encroachment on freedom of navigation, but because of Vietnam’s crucial role as exporter of microchips, which run short in the United States.
“When we talk about supply chain resiliency, everybody knows that semiconductor shortages have been part of the problem,” the first senior official said. While no major announcements are expected, the relationships are important.
“These partnerships are not abstract or theoretical,” the official said, noting “prices of new cars go up dramatically because of a shortage of chips, and then prices of used cars go up dramatically because the price of new cars.”
“Americans understand why it's important to have partners we can rely on and systems in place that prevent such shortages from happening in the future,” the official said. “This will be high on the list.”
The visit will also be the culmination of months of American outreach to Asia, where Washington’s partners worry about China’s rising influence and notably its efforts to claim control over vast reaches of the South China Sea.
In a brief written statement to The Daily 202, Austin said Harris would “find our partners there eager for U.S. engagement, as well as for her thoughts about how we can revitalize our relationship in the face of significant security challenges.”
“She’s got a great grasp on the issues, and her trip will no doubt help to advance our interests in this vital region,” Austin said.
Harris came to the vice presidency with little foreign policy experience but drew bipartisan praise for her work on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Since taking office, however, she has had a very active role on the world stage, joining Biden for some of his meetings with foreign leaders and having more than a dozen talks and telephone calls of her own with dignitaries and decision-makers from around the globe.
Notably, Harris joined Biden when they held a meeting of the “Quad” — the United States, Australia, India and Japan — for consultations on how to push back against China’s economic and military moves.
“She feels very strongly about Joe Biden’s success,” the second official said. “That is her objective. It’s not about grabbing headlines for herself. It is about ensuring his success and the success of the administration.”
When she has grabbed headlines, it hasn’t always gone well.
Biden tasked Harris with diplomatic outreach to Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to tackle the root causes of massive northward migrant flows — violence and economic deprivation.
That’s often been misreported as Biden having placed Harris, whose first foreign trip took her to Guatemala and Mexico, in charge of immigration writ large.
But in one interview, when pressed on why she had not been to the U.S.-Mexico border, a frequent Republican complaint, Harris retorted, “I haven’t been to Europe,” a response that flummoxed officials in the West Wing.
The vice president will also be the latest Biden administration official to attempt the balancing act that is standing up for democratic values and worker rights in a country — Vietnam — often criticized for the way it handles both.
“Is it a balancing act?” the first anonymous official said. “I think our foreign policy should be balanced and we have to take competing priorities into account.”
What’s happening now
Donald Trump, the president whose administration set in motion the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, accused Biden of “surrendering” to the Taliban. “First Joe Biden surrendered to COVID and it has come roaring back,” Trump said in a statement. “Then he surrendered to the Taliban, who has quickly overtaken Afghanistan and destroyed confidence in American power and influence. The outcome in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal, would have been totally different if the Trump Administration had been in charge.”
John Wagner notes: “Trump’s administration negotiated the terms of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, a deadline Biden later moved back. In 2019, Trump planned a weekend meeting at Camp David between Taliban and Afghan government leaders just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Trump ultimately canceled the meeting.”
More on Afghanistan
The recriminations over the disastrous U.S. exit from Afghanistan are already reaching fever pitch in Washington, and Biden aides are on the defensive.
- No flights are leaving or landing at the Kabul airport, the Pentagon says. There is a preliminary report that one U.S. soldier has been injured, per the New York Times. “John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said that a security breach on the civilian side of the airport led the American Marines there — 2,500 as of Monday morning — to shut down flights until troops have secured the airport.”
- He said that by Tuesday morning the military expects around 3,000 Marines would be on the ground at the airport to aid the evacuation effort. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is sending an additional 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne to Kabul, instead of to Kuwait, to help secure the area," the Times reported.
- “National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that President Biden stands by his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and insisted that the chaos playing out following the takeover of the country by the Taliban was not a ‘worst-case scenario,’” reports John Wagner.
- “Actually, I think the worst-case scenario for the United States would be a circumstance in which we were adding back in thousands and thousands of troops to fight and die in a civil war in Afghanistan when the Afghan army wasn’t prepared to fight,” Sullivan said during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. “That was the alternative choice Joe Biden faced.”
- Key quote: “If we stayed one more year, or two more years, or five more years, or 10 more years, no amount of training or equipment or money or lives lost by the United States was going to put the Afghan army in a position to be able to sustain that country on its own,” Sullivan added, per Wagner.
- Administration officials held conference calls on Sunday with members of Congress, per the New York Times. “The questioning was pointed and at times contentious. Much of it centered on which Afghans the United States would get out of Afghanistan — and how … Lawmakers also asked whether the Afghans that Americans are trying to help leave would go beyond those who worked for the embassy, interpreters for the military and others with special immigrant visas. The briefers assured them that the United States would try to help a broader group, including human rights and women’s rights activists, journalists and students at the American University of Afghanistan.”
About those Afghans who helped U.S. forces:
- “The Biden administration has struck rapid deals with allies to help it temporarily host refugees fleeing Afghanistan because they had worked with Western organizations. The governments of North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo said on Sunday they would take in a yet-unspecified number of refugees, who will then be security-screened and eventually sent to the U.S., according to top officials from the three countries," the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov, Dion Nissenbaum and Margherita Stancati report.
- “U.S. officials said they will accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas. About 2,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States over the past two weeks, a fraction of the estimated 88,000 that could need to be evacuated,” our colleagues report in The Washington Post’s running live coverage, which you can find here. On Twitter, follow The Post's Missy Ryan, Liz Sly, Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe, Craig Whitlock, Greg Jaffe and Karoun Demirjian for more updates.
Domestic reaction is pouring in from Republicans, many of them slamming Biden's decision, despite Trump paving the way for the U.S. exit.
- “[T]his is going to be a stain on this president and this presidency,” an angry Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top House Republican on foreign affairs,
- “Gross incompetence has given the Taliban a terrible opportunity to slaughter our allies,” writes Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in the National Review on Monday, per Amber. “Eighty-eight thousand of our Afghani allies have applied for visas to get out of the country, but this administration has approved just 1,200 so far. I’ve been among a bipartisan group of senators that has pushed Biden to expedite this process, but to no avail. At this point, it’s not clear how many we’ll be able to get out. Every translator and ally who stood by us is now at risk.”
- “I have been asking for months for answers on how the Biden administration planned to execute this withdrawal,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), a veteran who lost both his legs in Afghanistan. “And now they’ve showed us: be so unprepared that all those who worked with us are going to be executed," Amber also reports.
International reaction was also flowing in:
- “Chinese officials said Monday that Beijing would ‘respect the will and the choice of the Afghan people’ as the Taliban tightened its hold over Kabul, signaling that China plans to recognize the legitimacy of the militants’ rule over Afghanistan,” Rebecca Tan reports.
- “The Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, will meet with the Taliban in Kabul on Tuesday to discuss the safety of those working at the Russian Embassy in the Afghan capital, Russia’s representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said Monday,” Jennifer Hassan reports.
- The German military this morning began an operation to evacuate remaining German citizens from Afghanistan alongside what could be as many as 10,000 Afghan staff, activists and lawyers and their family members, Loveday Morris reports.
- “French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Monday that several transport planes have been sent to the United Arab Emirates, from where they are expected to depart on evacuation missions to Kabul,” Rick Noack writes.
- “The European Union’s top diplomat said Monday that all Afghan citizens ‘who wish to leave the country’ should be evacuated safely, but stopped short of pressing publicly for the bloc’s member states to approve a greater number of asylum applications from Afghanistan,” Reis Thebault reports.
- Amid the turmoil at the Kabul airport, “where thousands were desperately trying to flee Taliban rule, the British ambassador to Afghanistan stayed behind to ‘personally process’ visas of Afghan interpreters who had worked for Britain,” Jennifer Hassan reports. “Laurie Bristow, who was appointed in May, was swiftly hailed as a hero on social media, with many describing him as brave and honorable for the ‘incredible commitment’ shown in the face of mounting pressure and growing security threats.”
The Afghan security force’s wholesale collapse was years in the making.
- “According to documents obtained for the forthcoming Washington Post book ‘The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,’ U.S. military officials privately harbored fundamental doubts for the duration of the war that the Afghan security forces could ever become competent or shed their dependency on U.S. money and firepower,” Whitlock reports. “‘Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,’ an unnamed former U.S. official told government interviewers in 2016. Those fears, rarely expressed in public, were ultimately borne out by the sudden collapse this month of the Afghan security forces, whose wholesale and unconditional surrender to the Taliban will go down as perhaps the worst debacle in the history of proxy warfare.”
- “The capitulation was sped up by a series of secret deals that the Taliban brokered with many Afghan government officials. In recent days and weeks, Taliban leaders used a combination of cash, threats and promises of leniency to persuade government forces to lay down their arms. Although U.S. intelligence officials had recently forecast the possible demise of the Afghan government over the next three to six months, the Biden administration was caught unprepared by the velocity of the Taliban takeover. Afghan forces ‘proved incapable of defending the country. And that did happen more rapidly than we anticipated,’ Blinken said Sunday on the ABC News program ‘This Week.’”
And what about the women? “Now I have to burn everything I achieved,” writes an Afghan woman in Kabul.
- “Early on Sunday morning I was heading to university for a class when a group of women came running out from the women’s dormitory. I asked what had happened and one of them told me the police were evacuating them because the Taliban had arrived in Kabul, and they will beat women who do not have a burqa,” an unnamed female student in Kabul writes for the Guardian.
- “Meanwhile, the men standing around were making fun of girls and women, laughing at our terror. ‘Go and put on your chadari [burqa],’ one called out. ‘It is your last days of being out on the streets,’ said another. ‘I will marry four of you in one day,’ said a third.”
- “I have nearly completed two simultaneous degrees from two of the best universities in Afghanistan. I should have graduated in November from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University, but this morning everything flashed before my eyes. I worked for so many days and nights to become the person I am today, and this morning when I reached home, the very first thing my sisters and I did was hide our IDs, diplomas and certificates. It was devastating.”
For ongoing coverage, check out our live blog here.
U.S. journalists with connections to Afghanistan shared messages from friends there:
Quote of the day
“Decades from now, these images will be invoked as a vivid example of the limits of U.S. power, and of its inability to fight modern wars effectively or to end them on favorable terms,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan scholar at the Wilson Center.
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Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “Protests over vaccine and mask mandates boil over in California,” by Adela Suliman and Kendra Nichols: “In California, protests in Los Angeles turned violent after the City Council voted to require proof of vaccination for anyone entering an indoor public space. In a separate incident in Northern California, school officials banned a parent who, upset over seeing his daughter in a mask, allegedly left a teacher bloodied and bruised on the first day of classes at an elementary school.”
- “Death toll from massive Haiti earthquake soars,” by Ingrid Arnesen and Anthony Faiola: “An anguished cry in Creole echoed across the battered south of Haiti on Sunday as a devastated people sought to rescue friends, neighbors and loved ones from the rubble left by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Anpil anpil viktim. Many, many victims. The death toll from the earthquake that shook this Caribbean nation on Saturday rose to nearly 1,300, authorities said, as government officials sought aid from U.S. first responders. Adding to the woes of a country that suffers a seemingly endless supply of them, Tropical Depression Grace was bearing down with heavy rains forecast for Monday, threatening to further complicate relief efforts.”
… and beyond
- “Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocks mask mandates in two counties,” by CBS News’s Jordan Freiman: “The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily halted lower court rulings that allowed local government entities and school districts to implement mask mandates in defiance of an order from Governor Greg Abbott. A hearing on the earlier temporary injunction is scheduled for Monday.”
- “‘I’m the only surgeon’: After Haiti quake, thousands seek scarce care,” by the Times’s Maria Abi-Habib: “With broken bones and open wounds, the injured jammed into damaged hospitals or headed to the airport, hoping for mercy flights out. A handful of doctors toiled all night in makeshift triage wards. A retired senator used his seven-seat propeller plane to ferry the most urgent patients to emergency care in the capital. … There wasn’t much choice. With just a few dozen doctors available in a region that is home to one million people, the quake aftermath was turning increasingly dire. ‘I’m the only surgeon over there,’ said Dr. Edward Destine, an orthopedic surgeon, waving toward a temporary operating room of corrugated tin set up near the airport in Les Cayes. ‘I would like to operate on 10 people today, but I just don’t have the supplies.’”
Hot on the left
On the Afghanistan situation, the Democratic caucus feels that the White House “really screwed this up,” "according to a Democratic official, with anger focused on Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan in particular,” the Daily Beast's Scott Bixby and Sam Brodey report. “The official added both the progressive and moderate wings of the party were unified in their frustration: the former for the apparent lack of care paid to protecting and evacuating women’s-rights and democracy activists, and the latter for Biden’s decision to leave the country altogether.”
“Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), himself a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, [said] that while the failure of Afghan security forces is the most obvious reason for the swift collapse of country’s central government, the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan is the consequence of decades of poor decision-making on nearly all fronts. ‘When you ask ‘whose fault is that,’ it is the national security establishment over the last 20 years compounding one another’s errors, ad infinitum,’ said Auchincloss, who as a Marine commanded infantry in Afghanistan and led patrols through villages contested by the Taliban. ‘It’s the fault of the Afghan central government. We, for 20 years, gave them fertile soil to plant the seeds of civil society, of rule of law, of representative governance, and instead, the Afghan leadership provided incompetence and corruption.’”
Hot on the right
The GOP is waving a white flag in the same-sex marriage wars, writes Politico’s Meridith McGraw: “The evangelical right remains the most committed part of the party, and the Family Research Council leader is among its most powerful figures. But the GOP has, in recent years, undergone a quiet but consequential evolution: Party leaders still exhibit strong opposition to transgender rights and the top legislative priorities of the LGBTQ community. ... There is no serious discussion about trying to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled states are required by law to recognize the marriage of same-sex couples.”
America’s racial population shifts over the past decade, visualized
Rapid growth among certain racial and ethnic groups means the nation is becoming more diverse more quickly than expected. Census data from 2020 shows America is growing, but not equally. Search to see how your county has changed in our interactive map.
Today in Washington
Biden, who had originally planed to spend this week in Camp David, will return to the White House today at 1 p.m. He will deliver remarks on Afghanistan at 3:45 p.m.
John Oliver explained why ransomware attacks are on the rise: