Hungary in Afghanistan

“Hungary…was never really eager to do more than just go through the motions.”

That’s how Peter Marton and Peter Wagner end their overview of Hungarian policy towards Afghanistan.  Most of the rest of the book looks at what was (in)famously called ‘New Europe’ when the Bush administration threw a hissy fit when most of Western Europe had the audacity to question the Iraq War.  Those ingrates! If it weren’t for us they’d all be goosestepping to ‘Deutchland Uber Alles!’ [What is the statute of limitations for throwing allied participation in a war in someone’s face?]

The two Peters provide a nice overview of the Hungary’s goals in their post Warsaw Pact world:

  • Euro-Atlantic integration
  • good, neighborly relations
  • promotion of the interests of ethnic Hungarians beyond the country’s borders

In order to best accomplish those it had a choice:

[Should Hungary] dare be small, or if it should dare be big? [S]hould it sacrifice opportunities to assert its special interests even in some promising moments, or should it accept less than immaculate relations with its most important partners as a price for asserting its special interests with regularity, and possibly in a confrontational manner?

When Hungary first became eligable to become a partner in NATO and the alliance of Western nations, it had probably hoped to act as many such ‘small’ nations do when they join such efforts.  The two Peters make the case that Hungary was a great example of ‘alliance-exploitation’, where small countries can gain significant security benefits without really having to do anything.  Unfortunately for Hungary, before they were able to enjoy the good life of benefits without responsiblity, 9/11 happened and it was clear everyone would have to ‘pony up’ and contribute to the various wars that resulted.

But here’s the thing.  There’s never really been anyone in Hungary for whom service in Afghanistan was in their interest.  The general public met the mission with skepticism.  The political establishment have generally discussed in terms as a means to the end of strengthening their status within the alliance and the military wasn’t really prepared to take an active role in a complicated insurgency campaign.

As an aside, they reference an poll from 2007 in which Hungarians were asked what the main role of their national military should be.  Hungarians thought the top priority should be disaster management with protection of national borders and territory coming in third.  Anti-terrorism came in forth and cooperation with NATO peace support operations came in a distant 8th place (!).

I can only wonder what a similar poll of Americans would look like.

So, you have an apathetic public, governement and military AND growing pressure by 2005 for partner nations to do more.  So, the Hungarian government makes what looks like a brilliant decision.  They volunteer to take over the Baghlan PRT.  Running a provincial reconstruction team would be a significant contribution in anyone’s eyes and Baghlan seemed to be a quiet little province where the Hungarians could while away the war without much risk or commitment.

Unfortunately, the insurgents had a different idea.  Baghlan is the home of the Salaang Pass which was becoming an ever more important supply line for coalition supplies.  Convoys from Pakistan were increasingly under risk and new supply routes through Russia and Central Asia were becoming prominent.  Those routes required the Salaang Pass.  The insurgents knew that and began stepping up their activity in the province.  Combined with counterproductive political maneuvering from Kabul which exacerbated ethnic tensions, and a clear lack of focus and coordination from Budapest, by 2010 Baghlan was ‘left worse off than it was in 2006’.

A particularly facinating part of the chapter is the description of the Hungarian government’s lack of interest in the Afghan mission.  That lack of interest manifested itself in ways large and small:

No Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs has visited Afghanistan since 2006, and no Prime Minister has ever visited Afghanistan…

The MFA’s (Ministry for Foreign Affairs) Department for International Development Cooperation is working with a meagre budget that will amount to a mere [1 million euros] for the purpose of bilateral Official Development Assistance in 2011.

Nevertheless it…was charged with outlining a development strategy for Baghlan province…[even though it] had only one person within its staff assigned to work on Afghanistan and even this person’s portfolia included several other Asian countries.

Whew…could you imagine being the person responsible for developing (by yourself) a development strategy for your county’s biggest military deployment in decades?  Good luck with that.  But no worry, I’m sure you could rely on accumulated knowledge gained by being at the post for awhile and really getting to understand the issues surrounding it, right?

In 2006-2007, three Ministry officials succeeded each other in this position…In this early period there was no coherent strategy, and it is hard to establish exactly who or what determined the allocation of resources in 2007-2008…

And so what happens when you don’t have a strategy or capabilities to do much yet still have responsibility?  Well, you substitute activity for achievement.

As its activities have gradually contracted, the PRT has become overbureaucratised and its administrative staff doubled in size.

Would they ever end a war due to lack of interest?  Apparently not…

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