If the daily campaign narrative weren’t dominated by silly stories to fight and win the daily spin war, this story would be getting a lot more attention.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Asif Ali Zardari returned from China late Friday without a commitment for hard cash needed to shore up Pakistan’s crumbling economy, leaving him with the politically unpopular prospect of having to ask the International Monetary Fund for help.

Pakistan was seeking the aid from China, an important ally, as it faces the possibility of defaulting on its current account payments. With the United States and other nations preoccupied with a financial crisis, and Saudi Arabia, another traditional ally, refusing to offer concessions on oil, China was seen as the last port of call before the I.M.F.

Accepting a rescue package from the I.M.F. would be seen as a humiliating step for Mr. Zardari’s government, which took office earlier this year. An I.M.F.-backed plan would require the government to cut spending and raise taxes, among other measures, which could hurt the poor, officials said.

The Bush administration is concerned that Pakistan’s economic meltdown will provide an opportunity for Islamic militants to capitalize on rising poverty and frustration.

The Pakistanis have not been shy in exploiting the terrorist threat as way of trying to win financial support, a senior official at the I.M.F. said. But because of the dire global financial situation, and the reluctance of donor nations to provide money without strict economic reforms by Pakistan, the terrorist argument has not been fully persuasive, he said.

“A selling point to us even has been, if the economy really collapses this is going to mean civil strife, and strikes, and put the war on terror in jeopardy,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “They are saying, ‘We are a strategic country, the world needs to come to our aid.’ ”

People focus too much on the terrorist argument, which although serious, pales in comparison to the nuclear weapons issue. It may be politically unpopular to go to the IMF but Pakistan realistically has no good options at this point. Normally Washington would probably bail them out but given the domestic economic problems, they can’t do that now without stirring a huge domestic political argument on the eve of a presidential election that the incumbent party is on course to lose.

If the Pakistani state collapses because of the economic situation, it will probably be the next president’s first foreign policy crisis. And at or near the top of that crisis will be what to do about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. They are under the control of the military, which is one of the most powerful political constituencies in the country. But if their paychecks stop coming in, my guess is all bets are off.

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