Fifteen miles away in the capital, official attention is riveted on the two-week-old military confrontation with India, and politicians speak with patriotic fervor of the struggle to free remote, mountainous Kashmir from Indian control.

But in this chaotic and crumbling city, where the streets are clogged with fuming buses, emaciated horses and children lugging garbage bags, a growing chorus of desperate and disgruntled voices is asking why the government seems indifferent to the struggles of millions of ordinary Pakistanis.

Just a short freeway ride from Islamabad, the verdant, modern capital, Rawalpindi is a teeming pageant of Pakistan's problems: unemployment and overpopulation, corruption and poor public services, economic stagnation and political disillusionment.

"We are moving toward the precipice, not away from it," said Mohammed Amin, 44, an unemployed driver who, after a fruitless search for a job last week, was boarding a bus back to the village where he lives with his wife and nine children in a mud hut. "The politicians promised us drinking water so we would vote for them, but now we can't get in to see them and we still have to walk two hours to fetch water."

Across the city, a college-educated man who works for an oil company sipped tea amid the deafening din of traffic and confessed that he often goes without lunch so that he can pay for his children's education -- while leaving his car washed and parked outside his house to keep up appearances.

"I don't want my children to grow up feeling inferior, but in this country there is no justice. Only those with connections can succeed, and the ordinary people are left behind," said Sardar Khan, 40. "Even when we have good leaders, there is some deep-rooted thing that drags them down once they get power."

For the moment, Pakistanis from all walks of life are rallying around the cause of "liberating" southern Kashmir, the portion of the disputed territory that is under Indian control. With daily attacks by Indian warplanes in the mountains near the de facto border between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, and with Indian guns shelling Pakistani villages across the border, public passions are rising.

[India and Pakistan agreed today to hold talks on Kashmir this weekend, news services reported. An Indian Foreign Ministry statement said Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz would be welcome for talks on Saturday, and Aziz agreed to go to New Delhi "to try to defuse tensions over Kashmir."]

The conflict has given the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a respite -- however brief -- from dealing with such domestic ills as 63 percent illiteracy, a skyrocketing violent crime rate and a 56 percent drop in foreign investment in the past year.

"In this one thing, Kashmir, we are behind the government 100 percent," said Shahed Raheed, 50, who sells shirts in a Rawalpindi bazaar. "But in everything else, our thinking about Pakistan is negative. Our leaders are indifferent, our democracy is not working, our economy is in trouble. We are waiting for a miracle."

The discouragement and alienation voiced by many Pakistanis have increasingly put the Sharif government on the defensive. But instead of addressing the problems responsibly, critics say, Sharif has insulated himself by systematically undermining his opponents in every institution.

Since his party swept to power with a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 1997, Sharif has engineered the removal of the president, forced the Supreme Court chief justice from office, fired the army chief of staff and stifled dissent in parliament.

Since January, Sharif has also taken on the press, especially the tiny but influential English-language newspapers. Publishers have been charged with tax evasion and pressured to demote staff members. After one editor, Najam Sethi, gave a speech in New Delhi describing Pakistan as a "failing state" in the grip of multiple crises, he was arrested last month, detained for weeks and briefly charged with sedition.

"This government has systematically eliminated all checks and balances on its power," said Maleeha Lodhi, editor of the News, a daily paper in Islamabad. Sharif and his aides, she said, "see democracy as a one-day event for elections, between which the government is accountable to no one and uses all the levers of democratic power to its own ends."

Abuse of police powers and intelligence agencies has also increased concern. In the past month, police have been accused of torturing a political militant in Karachi to death; beating the husband of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, who is jailed on corruption charges; and dragging Sethi out of bed and off to prison without charging him.

Pakistani officials take issue with blanket indictments of the government. They point out that after its creation in 1947, Pakistan was ruled largely by authoritarian governments or martial law until 1988. Today, they say, it is still struggling to reconcile the traditions of a conservative feudal society with the responsibilities and freedoms of a modern democracy.

"Mistakes have been made, but the state is hardly falling apart. Pakistan has a vibrant democracy and a strident press," said Information Minister Mushahid Hussain. "We haven't shut down any newspapers, and there are TV panel shows that bash the government from morning to night."

There is little worry that the armed forces will attempt to grab power again. On orders from Sharif last October, the army chief dutifully stepped down, and Pakistan's test of nuclear weapons a year ago may have diminished the relevance of conventional forces. Still, military critics of Sharif are feeling bolstered by the revival of their most impassioned issue: the fight with India over Kashmir.

"Kashmir is the raison d'etre of the Pakistani army, and we are not afraid of carrying that battle to the brink," said Hamid Gul, a retired general with conservative views who describes Sharif's regime as "disguised fascism." Pakistan needs "leaders with character," Gul said, "and the army is the last remaining institution that can save Pakistan from disaster."

Some observers, however, say Pakistan is being judged too harshly by both its domestic and international critics. They say it has made remarkable political and economic progress, with a proliferation of universities and civic groups, a steadily rising standard of living and a political system that is flawed but surviving despite pressure from ethnic and Muslim extremists.

"People need to look at how far we have come, not how far we are from our destination," said Rasul Rais, a professor of social sciences at Qaid-E-Azam University in Islamabad. Twenty years ago, he recalled, "our prime minister had been executed, and my village had almost no tractors or TV sets. Today we have alternated democratic governments for 12 years, and I can even call my father on the village phone exchange."

CAPTION: Drivers of the two-wheeled carriages known as tongas carry people to work through decaying Rawalpindi, only 15 miles from sparkling Islamabad.