The United States says Pakistan is one of its most important allies in the war on terrorism. But at the same time, it is concerned about the South Asian nation's human rights record. A panel of experts gathered on Capitol Hill Thursday to assess U.S.-Pakistani relations and discuss whether Washington should change its policy toward Islamabad.

The forum was organized by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was created by Congress to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience and religion abroad.

Commission chairwoman Preeta Bansal expressed concerns about Pakistan's human rights record under President Pervez Musharraf: "Since overthrowing the civilian government in 1999, General Musharraf has taken a number of undemocratic actions, including altering the constitution, and pointedly sidelining the non-religious democratic parties in order to bolster his own power. What is more, some contend his government has done little to combat Islamic extremism in Pakistan, and instead has forged political alliances with religious extremist groups, thereby strengthening them," he said.

But after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Pakistan provided invaluable help in cracking down on al-Qaida. It also shut down the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network.

The Bush administration responded by lifting existing sanctions and promising a three billion dollar, five-year aid package, split evenly between economic and military assistance. This year, the administration announced plans to resume selling F-16 aircraft to Pakistan.

But Ms. Bansal questioned whether the Bush administration, eager for Pakistan's assistance in the war on terrorism, has been reluctant to criticize the Musharraf government's democracy and human rights practices, and if so, whether that could be undermining U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute says that is indeed the case. "We are making the mistake of allowing Pakistan to have it both ways: to maintain a friendship with us in the war on terror while at the same time perfecting its nuclear expertise, stifling democracy, women's rights, religious freedom and more. For as long as the United States continues to gloss over Pakistan's failure to move quickly on reform and remains reluctant to confront the government for its willingness to protect, for example, A.Q. Khan, it is making a mistake. As long as Pakistan fights international terrorists, and allows domestic extremists to run free, neither states' interests will be served," she said.

Ms. Pletka's comments about A.Q. Khan refer to Pakistan's refusal to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to directly question him, although the government says it is cooperating in the agency's efforts to eliminate the international black market in nuclear weapons technology.

Ms. Pletka suggested U.S. aid to Pakistan be conditional on improvements in human rights and greater efforts toward nonproliferation.

Pakistani-born Husain Haqqani, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endownment for International Peace, and former advisor to several Pakistani prime ministers, offered this suggestion to the Bush administration in its relations with Pakistan. "First, change the pattern of aid: reduce military aid, increase economic assistance. Second, be more open and clear in criticism," he said.

Ambassador Karl Inderfurth of the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, and former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs under the Clinton administration, says relations between Washington and Islamabad are the best they have been in many years.

He says the Bush administration should use the occasion to broaden its policy with Pakistan with the aim of preventing nuclear weapons technology from getting to black markets and strengthening the country's political, judicial and social institutions so it can become a democratic, moderate Muslim state.

He says the administration should do more to promote educational reform in Pakistan. "The United States should provide expanded economic and social development aid to Pakistan, more than the one-point-five billion dollars over five years that the Bush administration has offered. Education should be the principal focus of this aid. Pakistan's primary education system ranks among the world's least effective. The average Pakistani boy receives only five years of schooling; the average girl just two-point-five years," he said.

Mr. Inderfurth called it unfortunate that the Pakistani government has not lived up to its promises to close down madrassas -- or Islamic religious schools -- that have proven links to militant groups, but he said the magnitude of the task to reform and expand access to public education far exceeds the resources devoted to it.