By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
(CNN) — Pakistan can’t get no respect.
In 2007, Newsweek published an influential cover story proclaiming it “the most dangerous country in the world.”
The bill of particulars for this indictment typically includes the inarguable facts that the Taliban is headquartered in Pakistan, as is what remains of al-Qaeda, as well as an alphabet soup of other jihadist terrorist groups.
And in 2011, it became embarrassingly clear that Pakistan had harbored Osama bin Laden for almost a decade, even if unwittingly, in a city not far from the capital, Islamabad.
Leading Pakistani liberals are routinely assassinated by militants. Two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed when she returned from exile in 2007.
Around three years later, the governor of Punjab was shot to death by one of his own bodyguards because he had the temerity to suggest, correctly, that Pakistan’s onerous blasphemy laws tend to penalize its tiny Christian minority. The governor’s assassin was feted as a hero by many Pakistanis.
Pakistani scientists have proliferated nuclear technology to the rogue state of North Korea. And Pakistan now has the fastest-growing nuclear weapons program in the world.
Pakistan is also routinely gripped by Sunni-Shia violence, has a serious secessionist movement in the vast gas-rich province of Baluchistan and its financial capital, Karachi, is one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
Add to this toxic brew the fact that Pakistan operates like a tea party paradise; only about 2% of the population pays income taxes, as a result of which the government doesn’t do much of anything for anybody.
Lengthy power cuts are hollowing out Pakistan’s already weak economy, which, at its present 3% growth rate, cannot possibly sustain Pakistan’s youth bulge.
But there is another side to Pakistan that suggests some underlying strengths that don’t make quite as good copy as the Taliban marching towards Islamabad, as they did in 2009.
Those strengths are Pakistan’s maturing institutions.
Pakistan has a largely ineffectual state, but it has a vibrant civil society that picks up at least some of the government’s slack. The private Edhi Foundation, for instance, runs a fleet of 1,800 ambulances and a slew of other welfare services for the poor across Pakistan.
As a result of this strong civil society, Pakistan had its version of the Arab Spring long before the wave of demands for accountable governments emerged in the Middle East. It was, after all, a movement of thousands of lawyers taking to the streets protesting the sacking of the Supreme Court chief justice by the military dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2007 that helped to dislodge Musharraf from power.
Pakistan has a vibrant media. A decade ago, there was only Pakistan TV, which featured leaden government propaganda. Now there are dozens of news channels: many of them conspiracist and anti-American, but many of them also anti-Taliban and pro-democracy.
In the past year, the Supreme Court has taken on the IsI, Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, successfully demanding that the organization produce prisoners who had disappeared for years.
In November, Pakistan agreed to a pact with long-time rival India granting India “most favored nation” trading status; something that would have been unimaginable a few years back. This important development was sanctioned by Pakistan’s powerful army, which is a significant player in the country’s economy and understands that one way out of Pakistan’s economic mess is to hitch itself to India’s much larger economy.