BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for June 2009

Pakistan's 'loose nukes'

Mark Urban | 19:15 UK time, Thursday, 11 June 2009

Every now and then in this business someone in a position to know some enthralling secret passes information on to you, but you have no means of backing it up from other sources.

A few years ago, I was told about extraordinary US contingency plans to recover Pakistan's nuclear weapons, in the event of a collapse of law and order or an extremist coup in that country.

My informant gave me considerable detail. A super-secret agreement had been put in place early this decade following confrontations between India and Pakistan, two nuclear armed nations, over the disputed Kashmir region.

In order to stabilise an otherwise potentially highly volatile situation, Pakistan would tell the US where its nuclear weapons were.

India had been promised, that in the event of some Pakistani national cataclysm, the Americans would move in to remove the nuclear weapons.

The "loose nukes" nightmare would thus be avoided, and India would not be tempted into a first strike on Pakistan's atomic arsenal.

Sometimes stories, even from people who have held senior positions in Western governments, are a little too good to be true.

This one seemed to smack of Tom Clancy. Nobody would ever confirm it, and indeed some of those I checked it out with were openly sceptical. So I never ran the story.

Perhaps, after all, my original informant had been trying to plant it.

Now that the Obama administration is openly voicing its concern about the threat to Pakistan's nuclear weapons from rising militancy in that country, some aspects of that original tip off have come back into sharp focus.

In April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a US senate committee, that the US spent a lot of time worrying about Iran getting nuclear weapons, but that Pakistan already had them, and that, "they've adopted a policy of dispersing their nuclear weapons and facilities".

In this phrase, "adopted a policy" I detected a possible inference that Pakistan had moved away from an earlier procedure of keeping their bombs in a small number of locations.

My further inquiries suggested this inference was deliberate.

So here at last was a measure of confirmation for something I had heard years earlier.

As to what exactly Pakistan had told the US in the time of president (and former army chief) Pervez Musharraf, we are once again in hazier territory.

We do know however that Mr Musharraf knew far more about the country's nuclear complex than any civilian leader has ever been allowed to learn.

We also know that in the first years after 9/11, there was intimate strategic co-operation with the US.

Of course any suggestion that the US might, in the past, have had plans to sweep up these weapons is politically sensitive in Pakistan.

The country revels in the status that its arsenal has given it. Any suggestion that there were plans to "secure" the bombs, even in a state of anarchy, would strike many Pakistanis as a US plot to emasculate an Islamic nuclear power.

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Some feel the nuclear danger is being exaggerated in Washington in order to build support for the Obama administration's Af-Pak policy.

There may be something in this, given that the chance of Taliban storming some nuclear weapon storage point is remote.

But the real danger at present lies in subversion.

Pakistan's nuclear establishment produced the unhappy example of AQ Khan, who sold nuclear weapons technology to Libya, North Korea and Iran.

He is said to have acted from a combination of ideological and financial motives.

The chance currently is less of a complete collapse of order, the kind of circumstance under which possible secret plans of yesteryear would have come into play, but of one or more individuals working inside the system providing Islamic militants with nuclear materials or, sum of all nightmares, an entire atomic weapon.

'Palestine' and the personal

Mark Urban | 20:47 UK time, Thursday, 4 June 2009

US President Barack Obama's Cairo speech was a watershed moment.

Yes, sometimes even a journalistic cliche is justified.

He is a supreme practitioner of the "politics of the personal" - just read his books - and on Thursday we saw this approach introduced to the Middle East.

Inevitably the speech will be scrutinised for the detail of his language - referring to the Israeli "occupation" of Palestinian territory or America's "unbreakable" bond with that Jewish state.

The spinning about such themes is already in full swing, but it misses the wider point.

The real significance of this address was in telling the Arab and Muslim worlds that a quite different sort of person now occupies the White House.

The US president wants everybody to understand that he sees comparisons between the Palestinian struggle and the black civil rights movement in the US or that he is appreciative of the Islamic contribution to modern civilisation.

All of this was couched in personal, almost intimate, terms. There were allusions to the education of daughters, his father's journey as an immigrant from the African continent and to his own childhood experience of hearing the prayer call in Indonesia.

Repeated quotations from the Koran drew enthusiastic applause from his Egyptian audience.

His careful forays into sensitive Egyptian topics such as the rights of Coptic Christians or the universality of human rights were likewise gleefully received.

In terms of the broader politics, my own view is that there were two salient novelties in this speech. The descriptions of the "daily humiliations, large and small", of Palestinians and of "Palestine's" "right to exist", mark an important departure for an occupant of the White House.

This latter phrase, deliberately exploiting the power of words normally associated with Israel has great rhetorical, and therefore political power.

The emphasis on the US and Muslim countries working together on the basis of what binds them might seem like and example "diplomatic phrase making 101", but it also marked a strong difference from President George W Bush's approach.

Mr Obama has effectively today rolled out the negative philosophical image to his predecessor's War on Terror.

The Bush approach, and I witnessed this at the UN General Assembly in New York last September, was to give the bulk of a speech to what divided America from the Muslim world - how best fight terrorism.

Today Mr Obama did not use the T word at all, instead referring to "violent extremism".

Rather than threatening reprisal against state sponsors of that violence he gave the ultimate soft power presentation.

This ranged from promising US backing for female education projects to excoriation of Arab leaders who talked a good game about democracy when seeking power but soon abandoned it in office.

I can already guess the lines of attack that will be used against the speech. We got a flavour in an Osama bin Laden audio tape released on Wednesday.

But just as the president couched his arguments in terms of the personal, so we can expect those who oppose him or who are cynical about his motives to adopt the same tactic.

They will say that Mr Obama may be a decent man but he is a "prisoner of the Zionists" or a "puppet of the oil companies".

The Arab world, after all abounds with tales of good emirs surrounded by evil viziers.

However the real challenge for America's opponents - particularly those who play the traditional regional game of basing their attitude on what the president can do to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem - will be to explain away the fact that a man of the convictions expressed by Mr Obama today now resides in the White House.

Back in 1990, when trying to pressure Israel into negotiations, US Secretary of State James Baker famously announced the White House phone number and told them to call when they were interested in talking about peace.

Today Mr Obama has effectively told the Arabs and wider Muslim world, "I'm listening".

Shift to the right for rural Hungary

Mark Urban | 17:26 UK time, Tuesday, 2 June 2009

ETYEK, HUNGARY - Farmers in this remote corner of Europe seem to have the same gripes you could hear in Wiltshire or West Lothian.

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Imre Hegedus wants more rain, and he worries about the health of his herd of 1,700 dairy cattle, but the thing that really drives him to distraction is the buying power of the big supermarkets.

Names familiar from British high streets dot the landscape between Budapest and this village about 50 miles (80km) to the south west.

Complaints against the likes of Tesco, Spar or Lidl are widely heard in Hungary these days, where the power of the "multi-nationals" and its perceived effects on traditional rural life, are a hot election issue.

Mr Hegedus tells me that he is losing 8 cents (just under 8p) on ever litre of milk his farm produces - and that adds up to around 2,000 euros each day.

The dairy farmer is currently expanding his farm with a European Union (EU) grant. He is trying to achieve the economies of scale and production methods needed to compete with the Slovak and Polish dairy producers who also sell milk to the foreign owned supermarkets in Hungary.

Like many Hungarians, Mr Hegedus will vote for nationalists in the European elections - it is just a case of how far to the right he feels like going.

The Fidesz party is expected to poll around 60% of the vote. Jobbik, a newly established group to the right of Fidesz hopes for more than 5%. This would give Fidesz around 14 of the country's 22 European parliamentary seats and Jobbik one.

In recent weeks Jobbik has received much press attention. The party has a uniformed wing, the Magyar Guard, which it says stands ready to combat crime by the country's Roma minority.

Having attended one of its election meetings, the echoes of the 1930s are clear.

Mr Hegedus says that he has not yet decided whether Jobbik is a serious party worthy of his vote.

Many of its slogans, for example about combating the power of the multinationals or protecting Hungarian rural land ownership appear to address the diary farmer's concerns directly.

But he is sceptical about whether these policies could be delivered while the country remains subject to EU rules and regulations.

Neither Jobbik nor Fidesz proposes leaving the EU or even re-negotiating Hungary's membership.

Given the limits that staying within the Union would place on any policies that might be challenged as uncompetitive or discriminatory, the answer might lie with Mr Hegedus making common cause with dairy producers in surrounding countries.

But while he has led protests by local dairy producers against Tesco, he has not yet investigated that possibility.

I couldn't help wondering as I left the farm whether they might not challenge the supermarkets more effectively and make the EU work for their interests rather than against them if they organised in Hungary and its surrounding countries.

UPDATE - 16 JUNE 2009

fabsoursweet - well I hope the functioning or otherwise of the EU and its role as a moderator of political extremism has got something to do with the maintenance of peace. Actually reading the insights of those who commented above I'm really glad that I blogged on this subject. I must get down to the farm more often...

One reader contacted me offline to tell me that Etyek was not remote and was as close to the capital as Surbiton is to London. I'm kicking myself both because I didn't check out the distance I'd been given but also because, if I'd realised how close it was, I would have headlined the blog "The Suburbia of Buda".

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