PM Lee offers RSAF help in US evacuation from Afghanistan

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hold a joint news conference in Singapore, August 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hold a joint news conference in Singapore, August 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool

SINGAPORE — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has offered the United States the use of a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Airbus A330 multi-role tanker and transporter aircraft, in order to help with the ongoing airlift of refugees from Afghanistan as he emphasised the importance of continuous US engagement in Asia. 

Speaking in a joint press conference with US Vice-President Kamala Harris on Monday (23 August), Lee noted, "What will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be what the US does going forward – how it repositions itself in the region, how it engages its broad range of friends and partners and allies in the region, and how it continues the fight against terrorism."

He added that there have been "dramatic transformations" in Asia, wrought by the "benign and constructive influence" of the United States as a regional guarantor of security. "Singapore hopes and works on the basis that the US will continue to play that role, and continue to engage the region for many more years to come."

In response, Harris thanked Lee for the "generous offer" and added, "We are in Singapore to stress and reaffirm our enduring relationship to this country and in this region and to reinforce a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region."

In light of chaotic events in Afghanistan following the April announcement of the US military withdrawal, Lee was responding to a question from a reporter on whether the decision had changed the city-state's calculus of whether the US can be relied upon as a military and economic partner in the region.

The US has been heavily criticised for failing to anticipate the chaos that followed its abrupt withdrawal and swiftness in the collapse of the previous Afghan government. The Taliban, a militant Islamic group, declared "the war is over" as it entered the capital Kabul last Monday, 20 years after it was overthrown by US forces. 

There are also fears that US allies in Afghanistan would be the target of reprisals, and that the Taliban, which previously prevented girls from going to school and forced women to marry its fighters, may once again trample on women's rights. 

Many observers have questioned if the US can still be regarded as a reliable ally.

But Lee said he had told Harris that Singapore understood the Biden administration's decision to pull out, as, despite the US investing "considerable blood and treasure" in Afghanistan, it was an intractable task given the complex history, geography, and tribal rivalries, of the country.

The 69-year-old noted that Singapore participated in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The city-state also sent provincial reconstruction teams to support the Afghan people as Afghanistan was a key battlefront in the global fight against extremist terrorism. 

"Extremist ideas and capabilities were exported from there all over our region, and they pose a security threat to Singapore too. The Jemaah Islamiah group, for example, had direct links to al Qaeda in Afghanistan," said Lee, adding that he hopes Afghanistan does not become an "epicentre for terrorism" again.

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