THE COMPLEXITY of U.S. relations with Pakistan has been well reflected in the successive reports about the capture last month of a top Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The catch was first hailed as evidence that Pakistan had shifted its long-standing refusal to act against Afghan Taliban leaders based on its territory. Then came new accounts: Afghan President Hamid Karzai was reported to be furious about the arrest, because he believed Pakistan’s real intention was to disrupt secret peace talks underway between Mr. Baradar and the Afghan government.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. U.S. officials say the circumstances of Mr. Baradar’s capture, which have not been fully disclosed but included extensive American involvement, argue against Mr. Karzai’s conspiracy theory. Still, many officials believe that Pakistan continues to play a double game with the Taliban — arresting some, letting others go and refusing to act against the most senior leaders. It also seems likely that Islamabad is trying to position itself as the broker in any Afghan political settlement.
If so, that represents some movement on the part of Pakistani military leaders, who now seem more willing to be straightforward about their interests in Afghanistan. But the larger agenda of that leadership, much of which is in Washington this week for talks with senior Obama administration officials, continues to be problematic. The United States would like to help Pakistan modernize its economy, strengthen its political institutions and defeat its own Islamic extremists.

But when asked what it seeks in a strategic relationship, the government of Asif Ali Zardari proposed a lengthy laundry list that mixed worthy proposals, like more access to Western markets, with requests for advanced military hardware and other favors that reflect its continuing, unhealthy preoccupation with India. For example, it wants a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States similar to that struck with New Delhi. That should be a non-starter for a host of reasons, including Pakistan’s failure to come clean about its involvement in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

The Obama administration justifiably takes some credit for moving Pakistan in the right direction during the past year. But it also is strongly focused on winning Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan — whether that means capturing Taliban leaders or inducing them to accept a political settlement. The temptation may be to indulge demands for U.S. aid that tends to bolster the existing power structure rather than build a stronger civil society or educational system; or to give in to Islamabad’s perpetual bid for U.S. intervention in its relations with India. To go along with such proposals would merely strengthen those Pakistani forces that must be overcome if the country is ever to modernize — and end its self-defeating manipulation of groups such as the Taliban.