US-Pakistani Dialogue

The United States and Pakistan have plenty to talk about. Hence Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's visit to Washington last week had value, even if some tough agenda items remain unresolved.

President Clinton did not get Mr. Sharif to specify when he would formally commit his country to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would stop the testing, and hence development, of nuclear weapons. Pakistan and regional rival India made tentative commitments this fall. That led Mr. Clinton to ease the economic sanctions he was compelled by US law to impose after the Indo-Pakistani nuclear warhead tests of last May.

The president is right to push both sides toward a firm commitment. Their nuclear arms contest may have nationalist appeal, but it's economically destructive and militarily risk-laden. Pakistan, in particular, is on the edge of bankruptcy, barely able to service debts. It needs the support of the US and the International Monetary Fund, and such support will be advanced by responsible action on the nuclear issue.

Mr. Sharif put in a plea for the US to mediate the long-running Kashmir conflict between his country and India. That territorial dispute over the Himalayan state is the fuse for possible war in the subcontinent - war that could become nuclear. Clinton pointed out that any mediation would require a welcome by both parties, and India has never agreed to outside involvement. Another key item for the persuasion process.

Finally, Sharif and Clinton gingerly dealt with a subject of some embarrassment to the US. Pakistan paid for 28 American F-16s back in 1990. But delivery was blocked because President Bush could not certify, as demanded by Congress, that Pakistan wasn't developing a nuclear weapon. So a country that had long been a US ally was left $658 million in the hole.

The US has paid back a small part of that by selling parts of the F-16 package to others. A new purchase arrangement with New Zealand may free up a bit more. But the fairest approach would be to fully refund Pakistan's money.

The Pakistan's nuclear policies are regrettable. But those can best be changed by constructively engaging Islamabad. The blocked F-16 deal is an unconstructive irritant.

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