THE INDEX — February 24, 2009

Pakistan’s Swat region, which recently came under Islamic law (Sharia) after an agreement between officials in Pakistan’s northwest frontier province and a pro-Taliban cleric, finds itself amidst an extending ceasefire. The agreement to enforce Sharia was made in an attempt to restore peace to the region, which serves as the main highway for fighters heading towards U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan. So far, so good? Today, Taliban factions in the Swat valley announced an indefinite ceasefire in the region, while the Pakistani army stationed there—the Taliban’s main opponent—also “suspended operations.” Taking this gesture of peace even further, the Taliban released seven prisoners and promised to release more. The Taliban wants a seat at the discussion table concerning the implementation of Sharia in the valley—amid demands for the release of all Taliban prisoners and the exit of the Pakistani army. But there’s growing concern that the Pakistani government’s decision to allow this measure of autonomy was a concession that Islamabad can no longer control its wayward provinces.

Things are looking increasingly bleak for Cairo after homemade bombs were detonated this past Sunday. The attack, which killed a French tourist and injured 21 other foreigners and three Egyptians, has yet to be claimed by a group or individual, but has already effectively soured Cairo’s tourism sector—a major source of revenue for the city and its inhabitants. The Muslim Brotherhood, the popular Islamist movement, condemned the attack, while others are pointing to Egypt‘s involvement in the Gaza conflict as the motivation behind the explosion. Egypt is already facing a record-low number of visitors, and tourism is likely to decline even further as the financial crisis deepens.

Roughly 80,000 Afghan police officers will receive paychecks for the next six months, funded by the Japanese government as part of a 2002 pledge of $2 billion in reconstruction funds. There are currently no Japanese military forces stationed in Afghanistan. Afghan police are being trained to provide law enforcement but setbacks such as recruiting and trainee drug use have hindered much of the effort.

Attacks in Mogadishu left at least 14 people dead as Islamist rebels continue to fight the presence of African Union soldiers, just three weeks after the election of President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Militias shifted their sites on A.U. troops after the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in January. The lawless country is at a crossroads under this new leadership, say some observers, but an upswing in violence could threaten the possibility of internal peace accords between Islamist militias and the central government.

About 100,000 people filled the streets of Dublin over the weekend to protest the Irish government’s response to the economic crisis. More protests are expected this week as Ireland, once the economic gem of the European Union, faces slashed wages and near double-digit unemployment. The Irish economy, largely built on entrepreneurship, is in a credit slump and business owners are cash-strapped. But Ireland’s technologically skilled workforce could help the small country bounce back well before other mainland European countries, said Robert E. Kennedy, a business administration expert with the University of Michigan.

South Korea and Iraq are now business partners. A $3.55 billion oil field accord, signed today by South Korean president Lee Myung Bak and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, would give South Korea a substantial oil field in southern Iraq in return for funding and construction of various Iraqi infrastructure projects, such as power plants and hospitals. South Korea, a county that imports 800 million barrels of oil a year, will look to “secure” 2 billion barrels from this accord. Though the agreement likely will not be finalized until June, today’s meeting was intended to smooth relations between South Korea’s Korea National Oil Corporation and the Kurdish national government. Korea National Oil has two fields in Kurdish northern Iraq, which has (among other such oil agreements with various countries) been a sore spot with Iraq’s Shiite leadership. South Korea has asked, as part of this accord, for assistance from Iraq to further develop these northern fields.

According to the Sri Lankan government, the conflict between the army and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) rebel group is nearing an end. The government claims that the military’s advance (calle the “last objective”) has driven the remaining LTTE fighers into a small patch of jungle in the country’s northeast. The town of Puthukkudiyiruppu is the last remaining LTTE stronghold and, according to government reports, fighting is incredibly intense there. Both the European Union and the United Nations have once again called for a ceasefire. The LTTE has previously agreed to a ceasefire, but has refused to disarm; the Sri Lankan government, for its part, thus far has demanded that the LTTE must give up its weapons in order to take a seat at the negotiations. In the 25 years this conflict has been ongoing, an estimated 70,000 people have died.

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