Sebastian Abbot ?and Marjorie Olster

ISLAMABAD: With foreign reserves diminishing fast, Pakistan is on the brink of an economic crisis that may force its new government to ask for an unpopular bailout from the International Monetary Fund requiring a sweeping overhaul of the country’s economy.

The troubles could inject a new element of instability into the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people that Washington is relying on to combat Islamic militants at home and to help negotiate an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves stood at just $6.4 billion as of May 17, down from more than $14 billion two years ago. That is only enough to cover about 1.5 months’ worth of imports while the IMF considers adequate foreign reserves for any country enough to cover three months of imports.

Bottoming out could bring painful consequences: A run on the banks by panicked citizens anxious to convert savings into dollars amid fears of a devaluation, a withdrawal from the stock market, a collapse of economic activity and higher unemployment.

The presumptive head of the new government, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has made fixing the economy his main priority. But even though a crisis may be only six to nine months away, his incoming government appears hesitant about taking IMF money. They know it will come with conditions attached that would likely stir discontent on the streets, such as raising energy prices and broadening tax collection significantly.

“If we manage for six months, then of course we don’t have to go” to the IMF, said Sartaj Aziz, a key economic adviser to the government about to take power. He told the Associated Press that in his view, the country might not need a bailout if it moves quickly enough to boost growth and gets help from key allies such as Saudi Arabia, which would come with fewer strings attached.

Stepping up growth, however, is a daunting challenge in a country plagued by severe electricity shortages and a bloody Taliban insurgency, both of which have hampered economic expansion and foreign investment.

Most experts see another IMF bailout as inevitable and are urging the government to immediately seek at least $5 billion. They worry that any delay in asking for IMF help could spark a crisis of confidence that would snowball.

“The writing is on the wall that Pakistan is going to the IMF. The only thing left is to give a date,” said Ashfaque Hasan Khan, head of the business school at the National University of Sciences and Technology in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Khan said the official reserve figure understates the problem because the central bank has also borrowed more than $2.3 billion from commercial banks in the forward swap market to prevent the rupee from depreciating. That means the actual reserve figure is closer to $4 billion, he said.

Adding to those woes, Pakistan has very large debt payments coming due over the next year that will further drain reserves. Most notably, it owes the IMF about $2.5 billion by the end of this calendar year.

There have already been worrying signs in Islamabad, where commercial banks have begun telling customers trying to withdraw dollars that they are not available, or that they need to make a special request. Foreign exchange companies in the capital have also reported a shortage of dollars. Pakistan’s two largest cities, Lahore and Karachi, show no sign of similar problems.