Singapore international minister on Afghanistan disaster, terrorism risk

SINGAPORE — Afghanistan is facing a “perfect storm” that includes an unfolding humanitarian crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic — and the country’s fate is now up to the Taliban, Singapore’s foreign minister said Thursday.

“At the end of the day, the Taliban is in charge, they’ve got to take responsibility for the people,” Vivian Balakrishnan told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Thursday.

“One other lesson … is that foreign interference doesn’t work. In the end, the destiny of a people lies in the hands of its own people, and its own leaders,” said the minister.

The Taliban, an ultraconservative militant group, seized power in Afghanistan earlier this month as the U.S. continued to pull out its military presence in the country. Chaos followed the fall of the civilian government, and thousands of foreigners and Afghans have flooded the airport in Kabul in hopes of fleeing the country.

U.S. in a difficult spot

Read more on the developments in Afghanistan:

The foreign minister also said the outcome in Afghanistan was “inevitable,” but the speed at which the events unfolded was surprising.

The U.S. had gone to Afghanistan following the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was “clear” back then that Afghanistan was a “safe haven” for terrorists, said Balakrishnan, noting that local terror groups in Singapore also had links to al-Qaeda.

The point is within Southeast Asia, [terrorism] is a clear and present danger. And if anything, over the past two decades, I think it has grown.

Vivian Balakrishnan

Singapore’s foreign minister

He pointed to remarks by Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on the United States’ nation-building effort in Afghanistan. The late Lee had called those efforts a distraction — not a strategic imperative, the foreign minister recalled.

“And somewhere along the way, well, events have unfolded and confirmed his view,” said Balakrishnan.

Terrorism is a threat to Southeast Asia

Experts have warned that the Taliban’s return in Afghanistan could once again turn the country into a “hotbed” for terrorism.

Balakrishnan told CNBC terrorism remains “a clear and present danger” in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region.

“I wouldn’t relate it directly to the United States’ presence or absence in Afghanistan, but the point is within Southeast Asia, this is a clear and present danger. And if anything, over the past two decades, I think it has grown. So we cannot take this for granted,” he said.

The minister said he hopes Afghanistan doesn’t revert to becoming a haven for terrorists.

The Taliban said last week it won’t allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacking other countries, reported the Associated Press. It also pledged to respect women’s rights, according to the AP report.

Asked whether he thinks the Taliban is now “reformed,” the minister said he’s not in a position to assess that. But he pointed out that the Taliban is likely now made up of a new generation of people compared to two decades ago.

“You do realize 20 years means it’s a new generation. The people who are speaking on TV now on behalf of Taliban were probably little kids,” said Balakrishnan. “So I think you will have to judge them by their actions.”

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