Q&A: Powell Drops in on Shaky Colombian Allies

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A Colombian soldier looks out at the jungle

TIME.com: Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Colombia today amid signs of strain both in U.S. policy towards that country and in President Andres Pastrana's own plan to make peace with leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). What's the current outlook?

Peter Katel: Short of a top-to-bottom reassessment of the U.S. role in Colombia, which is unlikely, the outlook is for continued U.S. support for Pastrana and the peace process. That said, Washington, like many Colombian military officers, has no enthusiasm for the continued existence of "FARClandia," the Switzerland-sized chunk of territory the government turned over to the guerillas two-and-a-half years ago which the Colombian army is forbidden to enter. Many Colombians, especially urban Colombians, see that the FARC got something for free, because it hasn't let up on its insurgency despite being given this chunk of territory. President Pastrana has to decide in the next month whether to reauthorize the existence of this zone, and he's under a lot of pressure at home. Many military commanders believe peace won't come until the FARC has been hit a lot harder.

Still, Pastrana says he remains confident in the peace process, which may be a sign that he'll renew the safe zone for the guerrillas.

What are Pastrana's options, and what are Washington's?

Pastrana says the peace process is the reason he was elected. He has staked his political career on it, and abandoning it would be admitting defeat. But Powell's visit comes in the context not only of the U.S. looking askance at the safe zone, but also of strong hints that not everyone in the U.S. security establishment is persuaded by the current policy — the U.S. supports anti-narcotics efforts by the Colombian government, but not counterinsurgency efforts per se. And the difficulty, of course, is that the line between the two is often blurry when the guerrillas are financing themselves off "taxing" the drug trade in exchange for providing protection.

A recent Rand Corporation study commissioned by the U.S. Air Force recommends that the U.S. abandon attempts to distinguish between anti-drug efforts and counterinsurgency, and simply set out to help the government defeat the FARC.

On Monday, the State Department added the right-wing paramilitary organization the United Self-defense Groups of Colombia to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. This appears to be a gesture of support for Pastrana's option, since military hard-liners have not always been as critical of these groups as Pastrana has been…

Yes, Pastrana has made clear that he sees the right-wing paramilitaries as no more legitimate than the FARC, but although we don't know right now whether any officers maintain these links, it's certainly true that in the past there was a relationship between some military officers and paramilitaries. The State Department's move also make it more difficult for the paramilitaries to form a political party to challenge Pastrana.

How strong is Pastrana domestically?

His standing could be a lot better. The peace process to which he's devoted himself hasn't yielded much beyond a few prisoner exchanges, and the fact that talks to create a safe zone for the smaller leftist ELN guerrilla movement broke down was taken as a barometer of the fortunes of the peace process.

What is the FARC's game plan?

A former guerrilla leader recently told me that FARC still imagines taking over all of Colombia. And while that's not an official view, there's nothing to suggest the contrary. Some Colombian generals have argued publicly is that there can't be more progress on the negotiation front until FARC has been hit harder militarily and feel pressure to negotiate. Pastrana probably wouldn't disagree. There's no reason right now for the guerrillas to do anything differently. Why would they settle for less negotiating than they'd get by fighting?

The word "quagmire" occurs frequently when U.S. involvement in Colombia's war is discussed on Capitol Hill….

That concern usually surrounds U.S. troops in the field, and right now there aren't any; they're only doing training. The quagmire right now is more Colombian than American. Of course there's always a danger of U.S. personnel being targeted by FARC in order to send a message. But the argument on the other side is that if the U.S. keeps trying to make this distinction between anti-drug warfare and counterinsurgency, the conflict will drag on longer than if the U.S. comes out firmly saying the war should be won, and offers help. But whether the US is into a mind to return to full-fledged counterinsurgency in Latin America really remains to be seen.