WASHINGTON — Senior aides to Vice President Kamala Harris are trying to avoid any potential comparisons between the falls of Kabul and Saigon as she prepares for her upcoming diplomatic trip to Southeast Asia.
“We don't want to get bogged down in the historical comparisons,” a senior administration official told reporters during a background briefing call Friday.
Yet the comparisons between the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to the Taliban and the fall of the South Vietnamese government to communist forces seem unavoidable, particularly with the iconic image of a helicopter rescuing people from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975 being shown side by side with a similar photo taken recently in Kabul.
Harris departs Friday for a weeklong visit to Singapore and Vietnam in hopes of continuing diplomatic relations and assessing the U.S. role in the Indo-Pacific. She will be the first vice president to visit Vietnam, where more than 50,000 Americans died during more than 10 years of U.S. military intervention in the country.
Harris’s trip to the region was announced in early August, weeks before the collapse of the Afghan government.
So far, the vice president has made no public statements on the Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul, which occurred just days after the U.S. withdrew from the country. The administration is now facing rising criticism as Afghan allies have been left stranded and unable to evacuate through the airport in Kabul. The tumultuous scenes out of that city, including Afghans falling to their death from a departing U.S. military aircraft, have critics of the administration’s withdrawal strategy comparing the discord to the scramble to leave Vietnam amid the fall of Saigon.
Yet senior aides to Harris, speaking on a background call with reporters Thursday evening, rejected those comparisons and said her team determined that her visit to the region should not be canceled despite escalating chaos in Afghanistan.
“The vice president and her team obviously constantly assess what she needs to be doing. In this case, this is a critical trip for all the reasons we have been discussing. And she — we are all confident that she can do this trip and pursue all of these important interests while staying engaged on the subject of Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said.
“We’re not focused on the history of the Vietnam War, we’re focused on what’s going on today in Afghanistan and doing everything we can to have the most successful outcome,” the official said regarding the upcoming trip.
The official later shrugged off potential lessons learned from Vietnam. “So, you know, others can speculate all they want about, you know, what took place after the war and what that led to. They’re very different countries in very different parts of the world.”
Officials on the calls with reporters said Harris’s visit is a critical opportunity to strengthen ties in the region amid increasing competition with China.
She is set to host a press conference with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, visit American soldiers at Singapore's Changi Naval Base and facilitate the launch of the Southeast Asia office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other events scheduled for both countries.
In the meantime, her team maintains that she’ll remain briefed and engaged on Afghanistan affairs.
“The president, the vice president, the entire national security team have been working 24/7 and focused like a laser on working this issue and, in particular, over the last two days, obviously, getting Americans out, and others who have supported and worked with the United States on the ground, and other vulnerable Afghans,” said the official. “And she will continue to work on those issues and be in constant contact with Washington and her colleagues during this trip.”
Harris has repeatedly stressed her role as the last voice in the room during the president's major policy decisions. In April, when President Biden first set his Sept. 11, 2021, troop withdrawal date, Harris told CNN that she was indeed the last person the president consulted before making the decision to withdraw all U.S. military presence from Afghanistan.
“I wish the American public could see sometimes what I see, because ultimately the decision rests with him,” Harris told CNN’s Dana Bash. “But I have seen him over and over again make decisions based exactly on what he believes is right, regardless of what the political people tell him is in his best selfish interest.”
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