WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will travel tomorrow to South America, where he will witness Colombia's struggle with an intensifying, four-sided war and the U.S. efforts to support its government.
Powell's first task will be to reassure Colombian officials that, while the Bush administration is reviewing its policy toward their country, it is not contemplating a change in its basic approach, which includes strengthening the military, eradicating drug crops and supporting peace negotiations, aides said.
The U.S. commitment to continuing a policy that began with the Clinton administration's $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to Colombia and its neighbors comes as the fighting there with leftist rebels has intensified.
"This is a huge investment on the part of the people of the United States, and we need to make sure that it is done right," said one senior official involved in the government-wide review of the policy. But, the official added, "The fundamentals aren't changing; the core principles are going forward."
Powell intends to underscore that commitment by notifying the presidents of Colombia and Peru that he is determined to resume anti-drug flights that were suspended after a Peruvian jet shot down a plane carrying American missionaries in April, officials said.
A CIA-operated surveillance plane had identified the missionary plane as a suspected drug flight. A joint investigation by the United States and Peru found that a series of mishaps - involving faulty procedures, language difficulties and an overtaxed communications system - led to the attack, which killed Veronica Bowers, a Baptist missionary, and her infant daughter.
Colombian and Peruvian officials recently implored the Americans to continue the flights, saying that, in their absence, traffickers have stepped up operations in both countries.
But U.S. officials are still debating safety and liability issues surrounding the surveillance flights, and Powell does not plan to make an announcement during his three-day trip, aides said.
"It's a question of how and when, not if" the flights will resume, said one U.S. diplomat.
Such caution suggests a broader predicament. The United States has ample resources and a deep interest in curtailing the flow of drugs across its borders, but officials are nervous about being drawn into a chaotic war in Colombia that has simmered for decades and, they say, can result only in a stalemate.
Morris Busby, a former ambassador to Colombia, said conditions have worsened significantly in the past 18 months. Rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have enriched themselves through the drug trade and used a demilitarized zone to carry out attacks, while right-wing paramilitaries have thousands of new recruits.
"Colombia is one of the most serious foreign policy problems that we have," Busby said. "It's almost like China, where you had warlords fighting with each other, and a weak central government. It's a terrible situation."
It is a situation that defies Powell's doctrine for U.S. engagement - there is no clear end to the mission - and no one argues that government forces can defeat the rebels militarily.
But officials insist that they have incorporated the lessons of the past by barring U.S. troops from a combat role and broadening the presence of the state by bolstering development projects and the justice system. Through aerial spraying, they add, Colombian and U.S. teams have eradicated 62,000 acres of drug crops in the southern Putumayo province.