The Bush administration has decided to release to the Indonesian military money that was held up after a preliminary US investigation pointed toward Indonesian soldiers as the likely perpetrators of an ambush that left two Americans dead and eight wounded last August.
The killings have become a major stumbling block for a military relationship that many US officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, are eager to get back on track.
The issue pivots on an age-old debate among American policy-makers: Does engagement with militaries that routinely tread upon human rights improve their long-term performance, or provide cover for their crimes?
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has tilted sharply in favor of engagement. It is eager to strengthen ties with foreign militaries as part of the war on terror, and senior officials have argued that the exigencies of the war on terror make it shortsighted to cut America off from any potential allies.
While Mr. Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia, and other administration officials acknowledge that many problems remain, they argue that contact and training with America's armed forces is the best way to reform their behavior.
"I believe exposure of Indonesian officers to (the) US has been a way to promote reform efforts in the military, not to set them back," Mr. Wolfowitz told reporters last month.
US training of Indonesian soldiers had been suspended by Congress since September 1999, when Indonesian soldiers and military-linked militias carried out a scorched-earth policy following a United Nation's sponsored independence vote in the former Indonesian province of East Timor.
But administration officials have argued that it is foolhardy to remain cut off from the military of the world's most populous Muslim nation, which is making halting progress towards becoming a stable democracy.
Last year, those arguments won approval from Congress for $400,000 worth of training for the Indonesian military in the 2003 fiscal year. The money, for a program known as International Military Education and Training (IMET), would have allowed about 30 Indonesian soldiers and civilian defense officials to come to the US this year.
Then came the killings last August, and the administration voluntarily decided to hold up the program to send a message of concern to Indonesia.
The attack, which also killed an Indonesian man, occurred on a concession of Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold in Indonesia's remote Papua Province. All of the victims were contract employees of the New Orleans-based mine, most were teachers at Freeport-affiliated school returning from a day trip to the highlands near the mine.
The Indonesian police found that Indonesian soldiers were the likely perpetrators. Matthew Daley, US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has also said that evidence indicates that Indonesian soldiers were involved. The US Federal Bureau of Investigations continues to look into the killings.
Last week, in a separate development, Congress voted through a restriction on military training for Indonesia for fiscal year 2004 that would require Indonesia "to criminally prosecute the individuals" responsible for the attack before funds could be made available.
But the money for this year can be spent at the administration's discretion, and the government has decided that working with the military is the best way to exert influence.
"In the short term, the Indonesian military is about the only nationwide institution that functions,'' says a senior US official. "We have an interest in an Indonesia - as the world's most populous Muslim nation - that is stable and democratic, and that isn't going to happen without reform in the military."
The decision comes over protests from human rights activists and survivors of the Papua attack.
"It may be a small amount of money but it's symbolic and very important,'' says Ed McWilliams, a retired US diplomat who now lobbies Washington on human rights issues in Asia. "Restoring training now sends the wrong message to the Indonesian military."
Patsy Spier, a survivor of the attack whose husband, Rick, was killed, has become a leading voice among those asking for the training to be suspended pending a full investigation and prosecution.
"The release of the IMET funds now would only cause the Indonesian people to question America's values when it comes to their citizens' safety,'' Mrs. Spier wrote in a letter to Wolfowitz earlier this month.
Spier and others still hold out hope that the government will be dissuaded. When it decided to delay disbursement, the administration promised to consult Congress before the program was resumed, and those consultations will take place this week.
Though Congress does not have the power to block the program on its own, human rights activists and attack survivors hope that strong objections will change the administration's mind.
"Congress can persuade them that this is not the time to release the funds because the FBI is not finished with its investigation,'' Spier said.