October 21, 2013

FOUR MONTHS after Nawaz Sharif launched a new government in Pakistan, little has changed in the security matters most important to the United States. Authorities continue to allow a Taliban-affiliated group to use Pakistan as a base to carry out attacks against U.S. targets in Afghanistan. Terrorists who target India also continue to operate openly. Rather than fight the Pakistan-based branch of the Taliban, Mr. Sharif has proposed peace talks with the group, and he continues to denounce U.S. drone strikes aimed at senior Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders.

The Obama administration is nevertheless offering Mr. Sharif some carrots, including an Oval Office meeting this week; more than $1 billion in frozen aid will be released. The hope is that the new Pakistani leader will prove better able than his civilian predecessors at gaining control over the armed forces and intelligence services and that this will eventually lead to greater Pakistani cooperation in brokering peace in Afghanistan, as well as in combating extremism in Pakistan.

This is a reasonable strategy, even if it is, like all U.S. bets on Pakistan, a long shot. Mr. Sharif, who served as prime minister in the 1990s before being ousted in a military coup, has emphasized consensus-building and caution since returning to office. He sought support from a dozen political parties on talks with the Taliban, opened a dialogue with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and is gently asserting some control over the military. Rightly focused on mending a stricken economy, he struck a financing deal with the International Monetary Fund and is taking steps to address a national power shortage.

This display of relative competence offers reason for hope that Mr. Sharif may eventually join with the military in adopting a more rational policy toward the Taliban and other Islamist militants. The proposed negotiations appear to be going nowhere: The Taliban has set extreme preconditions and recently carried out a series of provocative attacks. Mr. Sharif promised Mr. Singh a more vigorous investigation of Pakistani suspects in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. In response to a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he presided over the release of a number of Taliban prisoners, though Afghan peace talks appear to be going nowhere.

The gap between Pakistan and American ambitions for the country may be narrowing. Pakistan appears more ready to be solicitous of the Afghan government’s position on the Taliban and more aware of the danger the movement poses to its own political order. But Mr. Sharif must cope with powerful public hostility toward the United States as well as with military factions that continue to encourage Afghan and Kashmiri jihadists.

Like much of the civilian political elite, Mr. Sharif would like to see the United States demonstrate that it wishes to have a partnership with Pakistan that extends beyond counterterrorism and Afghanistan to trade, economic development and broader security issues. The Obama administration is right to take steps in that direction. But in the end Mr. Sharif must be judged on whether he is willing to decisively side against Islamist extremism.

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