This Week in South Asia: November 2-8

Commentary from the South Asia Center on the most relevant news from the region, and suggested “must-read” analyses from the week.

On Tuesday, November 5, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched a rocket to Mars. The launch went very smoothly, with ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan calling it a “textbook” mission. The orbiter still has a long way to go;  it is not expected to achieve a Martian orbit until September 2014. Nonetheless, this is an important first step, and makes the ISRO only the fourth space agency – after the United States, Europe Union, and Russia – to attempt to launch a mission to Mars. Despite India’s achievement, the launch has received some criticism in the international press. Some have claimed that India is irresponsible for pursuing such a mission while much of the country is still in poverty. The launch, however, only cost $73 million – compared to NASA’s next Mars mission which is anticipated to cost upwards of $671 million. The ISRO is also focused on how to use space exploration to overcome the country’s economic obstacles. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh specifically addressed this criticism last year when he said, “… a nation’s state of development is finally a product of its technological prowess.”

Relevant News Stories:
India is Going to Mars! But don’t call it a space race. (Washington Post)
India Can Send a Rocket to Mars and Fight Poverty at the Same Time (The Atlantic)
India Swears Its Redundant, Mega-Priced Mars Probe is Totally Worth It (Foreign Policy)
Space Governance: A Modest but Important Start (Space News) 
Congress Red-Flags Manmohan Singh’s Visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM (Times of India)

On Thursday, November 7, the Pakistani Taliban named Mullah Fazlullah their new leader after the death of former leader Hakimullah Meshud in a US drone strike last week in Waziristan. Fazlullah is perhaps best known for leading the men that shot Malala Yousafazi in October 2012. Fazlullah also led the TTP in Swat between 2007 and 2009, where the group enforced Sharia law and had almost complete control of the region. His brutal leadership resulted in destabilization of the region and hundreds of deaths. Fazlullah is an interesting choice for the TTP as he is not a member of the Meshud clan. Much of the TTP’s fighting force is made up of Meshud fighters, and it is possible that they may have trouble maintaining loyalty to a leader outside of their clan. 

Relevant News Stories:
Pakistan Taliban Name Mullah Fazlullah New Leader (BBC)
TTP’s Ruthless New Commander Fazlullah (DAWN)
A Militant Group in Crisis (Foreign Policy) 
Pakistan Glaciers Will Melt by 2035 (DAWN)

On Friday, November 8, US Secretary of State John Kerry joined negotiators in Geneva in an attempt to close a nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary Kerry met Friday evening with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief. While a deal has not yet been reached, the trilateral meeting between these three high-level officials is a significant step, and indicates that a deal may be imminent. The deal, although largely confidential, has been described as a preliminary step that would halt Iran’s nuclear program for six months in return for unspecified easing of economic sanctions. This six-month agreement would then give negotiators an opportunity to hammer out a more comprehensive deal. 

Relevant News Stories:
Kerry Joins European Officials at Iran Nuclear Talks (NY Times)
Kerry Meets Iran Foreign Minister to Close Gaps in Nuclear Talks (Reuters)
How Netanyahu Could Kill a Nuclear Deal with Iran (Washington Post)  

On Tuesday, November 5, 152 former Bangladeshi border security forces were sentenced to death for their participation in a 2009 mutiny. 161 others were given life sentences. The 2009 mutiny started as a result of dissatisfaction with unequal pay and poor treatment amongst the security forces, and resulted in the deaths of 74 people – 57 of whom were top Army officers. The trial began in January 2011, and roughly 850 people were charged with involvement and arson, murder, or torture. The trial has received harsh criticism from human rights watchdog groups, and most notably from the United Nation’s rights commissioner Navi Pillay who has claimed that the trial failed to meet standards of due process. Pillay has also accused Bangladesh of torturing detainees and using evidence obtained under torture in court.

Relevant News Stories:
Bangladesh Sentences 152 Soldiers to Death for Mutiny that Shook Nation (Christian Science Monitor)
UN’s Pillay Slams Bangladesh Death Sentences Over Mutiny (BBC)

As the US plans to withdraw troops by the end of 2014, they are likely to leave behind an unintended result: flourishing poppy fields. The US has spent $7 billion since 2002 to combat poppy cultivation and the resulting drug trade, but with little result. A recent Pentagon report shows that the 2013 poppy harvest is anticipated to be considerably bigger than 2012. The US is leaving behind a well-trained Afghan counter-narcotics police force, but their influence is expected to diminish considerably after the drawdown. There is little political will for anti-drug initiatives among Afghan elites and politicians. As the war economy contracts, the revenue from the poppy trade is considered even more essential. Furthermore, the Afghan drug traffickers are surprisingly collaborative compared to other strong drug trades in places like Colombia and Southeast Asia. This collaboration makes the force even more difficult to topple.

Relevant News Stories:
As US Withdraws from Afghanistan, Poppy Trade it Spent Billions Fighting Still Flourishes (NY Times)
With the US Set to Exit Afghanistan, is legalizing the Taliban the way to end the war? (Christian Science Monitor)
Afghan Militant Group Faces Unusual Discontent (NY Times)