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Biden's promise: To kill enemies, extract civilians with no ground force

Analysis: The president set a high bar for himself Thursday as he vowed to go after terrorists and evacuate civilians while keeping his Aug. 31 Afghanistan withdrawal deadline.

WASHINGTON — In issuing a threat to U.S. enemies Thursday, President Joe Biden made promises to the American people that will serve as measures of his resolve and competence as commander in chief.

"To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay," Biden said of the Kabul airport attack hours earlier that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghan civilians.

He went further in vowing that "we will rescue the Americans who are there, we will get our Afghan allies out."

Biden has been close enough to national security policy for long enough to know that exacting revenge can be as swift as a drone strike or as painstaking as the two-decade war he is exiting. He also certainly knows, especially given the events of the last two weeks, that the task of extracting every departure-minded American citizen and friend will be made even harder after U.S. forces are withdrawn.

He is facing calls for his resignation from some Republicans and harsh criticism for his handling of the evacuation from some fellow Democrats.

But Biden remains resolute about the Tuesday deadline for removing the American military. In doing so, he is making a bet that American counterterrorism and evacuation operations can be executed without a residual force beyond that date.

He is promising to end the war, fight terrorists and rescue people all at once.

"We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing," Biden said. "We will continue, after our troops have withdrawn, to find means by which we find any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan. We will find them and we will get them out."

The criticism from Republicans, some veterans and some Democrats in Congress is escalating. Few of them suggest that his overall decision to withdraw — in line with a process former President Donald Trump began — is wrong. Instead, they are questioning the execution of the withdrawal — and, in some cases, whether the danger to Americans and Afghans should compel him to keep U.S. forces in place after Tuesday.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., called Thursday for Biden's resignation, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., urged the Cabinet to remove Biden from power by invoking the 25th Amendment.

"We must reject the falsehood peddled by a feckless president that this was the only option for withdrawal,” Hawley wrote.

There is zero chance that Biden will resign, or that Congress or the Cabinet will remove him from office, as an immediate result of Thursday's terror attack.

No member of Congress called for President George W. Bush to resign or be removed from office after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks or for President Franklin Roosevelt to be booted after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor — attacks that killed thousands more Americans than Thursday's bombings.

But some of the sentiments of Biden's toughest Republican critics are being echoed by his friends on the Democratic side of the aisle.

"Although it is clear to me that we could not continue to put American servicemembers in danger for an unwinnable war," wrote Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., on Twitter on Tuesday. "I also believe that the evacuation process appears to have been egregiously mishandled."

While White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday may have been the worst day of Biden's presidency, the attacks, which killed at least 126 people, also gave Biden a chance to reset the American mission in a way that focuses in part on offense against ISIS-K — the group he said he believes is responsible for the carnage — and other terrorist outfits.

Finite counterterrorism operations have become an increasingly attractive option for presidents over the last two decades as technology and intelligence-gathering have made it easier to execute precision strikes without major military forces on the ground.

Biden suggested that is his plan.

"With regard to finding, tracking down the ISIS leaders who ordered this, we have some reason to believe we know who they are — not certain — and we will find ways of our choosing, without large military operations, to get them," he said in response to a question from NBC's Kelly O'Donnell. Pressed on whether that includes hitting them in Afghanistan, Biden replied, "wherever they are."

He'll be judged on his ability to exact that retribution — and whether the rest of the evacuation efforts, before and after the deadline, are carried out without greater loss of life.