Pakistani officials and a visiting International Monetary Fund delegation are holding tough negotiations this week in search of a deal by Thursday on loans to bail out the financially strapped country and avoid a default.
Analysts say the financial crisis, coupled with political instability and a mounting terrorist threat, are creating the sort of conditions that have repeatedly led in the past to military takeovers.
The IMF delegation has been in Islamabad since January 31 but still is unable to agree with Pakistani officials on how much money the country needs to avoid defaulting on external payment obligations, the Reuters news agency reported Monday.
Pakistan has only $3.5 billion in reserves but owes more than $9 billion in principal and interest payments in the next few months. Inflation has exceeded 25% in recent months and the country's currency has plummeted to a historic low in value. Pakistan's staggering $14.5 billion debt in the energy sector is another contentious issue in the talks with the IMF.
"Pakistan is on the brink of economic collapse," said John Ciorciari, professor of research and policy engagement at the University of Michigan.
"If the crisis continues, the government may soon face considerable added unrest and exacerbate domestic social conflict. This could destabilize the government in a country where the military often has come out of the barracks to assert rule," Ciorciari told VOA.
Miftah Ismail, a former Pakistan finance minister, has suggested that a combination of countries and institutions could step in to keep Pakistan solvent.
"If Pakistan is able to get IMF tranches in, and some loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank ... and some deposits from Saudi Arabia and UAE [United Arab Emirates] and perhaps some money from China as well, then I think we should be able to at least avert the default," he said at a Brookings Institution event last week.
In 2019, Pakistan and the IMF agreed to a $6 billion bailout but differences over monetary policy have held up the release of more than $1 billion. Meanwhile donors and lenders have demanded structural reforms before giving more funds to Pakistan.
"Pakistan's traditional partners are conditioning their assistance on the revival of the IMF program and implementation of reforms, including the expansion of tax collection," said Arif Rafiq, an independent analyst.
Hammered first by the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by inflation and then, in 2022, by devastating floods, the world's only nuclear-armed majority-Muslim country has been facing the kind of serious economic, political and security challenges that culminated in military coups throughout its 76-year history.
Relentless political turmoil and security threats from the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State group have compounded the dire economic situation.
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At least 100 people were killed and dozens were wounded on January 30 when a suicide attacker detonated explosives inside a mosque in Peshawar.
Other experts say the Pakistani military has traditionally intervened when it believed the country's grand strategic interests were threatened, leaving economic and political issues for civilian leaders to handle.
"The military has little interest in assuming responsibility for the economic and political current crises facing Pakistan," Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at The Middle East Institute, wrote to VOA in emailed responses.
Pakistani army generals understand, said Weinbaum, that if they resort to a coup, "Pakistan may be sanctioned by much of the international community, further adding to the country's difficulties."
But, he said, if the economy breaks down or the political disorder worsens, the military will intervene as it has in the past.
Behind the scenes
The current coalition government is particularly accused of promoting dynastic politics rather than bringing in experts to fix the crumbling economy and implement critical reforms. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is a brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto's parents served as prime minister and president. His mother, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December 2007. His father is former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
While Pakistani civilian leaders and politicians are blamed for rampant corruption and incompetence, the army has maintained its image of strength and discipline.
"Despite some reputational loss in recent years, the military remains the country's most respected institution," said Weinbaum, adding that the military displayed its organizational cohesiveness through recent senior level appointments.
Even while it does not run the country directly, the army is understood to be Pakistan's most powerful institution.
"Since 2008, the military has been content to run things behind the scenes and that is continuing through the country's current set of crises," Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA.
To stay clear of public criticism, the military has set strict boundaries for the Pakistani media, while it has been accused of targeting journalists and censorship. Since 2021, criticism of the military has been considered a crime.
"The army is usually described as the kingmaker behind Pakistani democracy's trappings," the free press advocate organization Reporters without Borders said in a report in July.