Bowe Bergdahl: A never-ending state of war?

A soldier is silhouetted against the sky on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ending the war against al-Qaeda would directly affect the legal status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay

After a bruising week where the Obama administration found itself on the defensive over a cover-up within the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House thought it had some good news to announce.

In a Rose Garden ceremony, President Barack Obama welcomed the release of Sgt Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity, exchanged with help from the Qatari government for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo.

It was good news, but political hell broke loose anyway. The criticism came from all directions:

Congress was not consulted, a necessary legal hurdle for the Taliban prisoners' release. The price was too high, since these senior Taliban commanders could rejoin the fight and threaten American lives in the future. Mr Bergdahl may have walked away from his post, which calls into question not the rescue but rather the high-profile announcement.

Ending three wars

All that said, the furore is not so much about Mr Bergdahl than the future of the war against political extremism. Twelve years after 9/11, there are still major strategic disagreements over who the enemy is, how to defeat them and what success (or victory) looks like.

Mr Obama is positioning himself to end the three wars he inherited by the time he leaves office. The last American soldier left Iraq in 2011. The combat mission will end in Afghanistan at the end of this year, with all US and NATO soldiers out by the end of 2016. Regarding the war on al Qaeda - what former President George W Bush initially termed the 'war on terror' - President Obama said in a speech last year at the National Defense University: "This war, like all wars, must end."

While true, if the Bergdahl controversy is any indication, Congress is not prepared to do that any time soon.

Mr Obama said a year ago that he intends to engage Congress regarding the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the declaration of war that justifies US operations against core al Qaeda - those responsible for the attacks of 9/11 - and its affiliates and allies. It has been the basis for not just the war in Afghanistan, but other mostly covert operations against al Qaeda in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, and related intelligence and legal actions.

The primary concern about the AUMF is its age. There is little question the broad extremist threat to the United States and its key allies is greatly reduced. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda's core leadership has been "decimated", as Mr Obama said at West Point last month. But the residual threat is not zero.

Al Qaeda's new generation

A new generation of al Qaeda operatives is now emerging - groups and individuals that identify with the al Qaeda brand but had no connection with 9/11. Their defining struggle is not Afghanistan, but may well be Syria. New networks are focused more on local, not global, issues.

Al Qaeda is attracting a broad range of combatants to the ongoing civil war, including an estimated 70 Americans. A young Florida man recently blew himself up in Syria. What the other Americans and Western citizens do with the military experience they gain there is anyone's guess.

The central question going forward is whether the long-term residual threat from such political extremists can be handled by a combination of intelligence, military and law enforcement action below the threshold of "war". For example, the US and other countries have taken action against Boko Haram, which identifies with al Qaeda, after it abducted some 200 schoolgirls. Washington has gone to great lengths to distinguish this response as support and not combat.

If the AUMF is repealed, the greatest impact would be on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. It would remove the legal justification for the prison and the military tribunals being conducted there.

In 2009 Obama pledged to close Guantanamo within a year. Congress blocked that initiative. Since then, the administration has been able to reduce the size of the population, now down to fewer than 150 detainees, but not put it out of business.

The prison population includes a handful of genuinely dangerous people who cannot be tried in a civilian court, including 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Few military tribunals have been completed. Mohammed's has been going on for two years with no end in sight. Few members of Congress are enthusiastic about transferring detainees to American soil and within reach of the US civilian court system.

While the AUMF could be modified, it's more likely Congress will, by inertia, simply keep it on the books, extending the state of war indefinitely. Mr Obama has consistently maintained this is unsustainable both politically and legally, a point on which he and Edward Snowden completely agree.

Four days before he announced Mr Bergdahl's return, the president was also in the Rose Garden to discuss the American transition out of Afghanistan. He said: "It is harder to end wars than it is to begin them."

He meant these words to be rhetorical. They could end up being prophetic.

PJ Crowley is a former US assistant secretary of state and now a professor of practice and fellow at the George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.