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In the early 2000s Hungary was often criticized because its defense budget has never reached the expected 2% of GDP, since the NATO-accession of the country in 1999. On the contrary, real spending was mostly around only 1%, sometimes even less. Though a gradual increase will hopefully take place from the 0.81% planned for 2012, reaching the magical 2% seems beyond reach for quite a while. But Hungary has given in other important ways.
The concrete output (how a NATO member country actually contributes to the overall success of the Alliance) is much more important than nominal input, which is derived only from spending-related numbers. The Alliance needs troops for its numerous operations abroad, and this is the area in which Hungary has performed much better.
Generally speaking, compared to the overall size of its armed forces, Hungary keeps a remarkably high number of soldiers serving abroad in international crisis management missions. At present, approximately 1,000 Hungarian soldiers serve in various international operations, some 70% of them in NATO missions, while the rest are deployed in EU or UN-led missions. The overall size of the Hungarian Defense Forces is around 28,500, so the 1,000 soldiers serving abroad represent an almost 4% rate, which is high among NATO member countries.
Concerns have even been raised in Hungary as to possible overstretch in terms of personnel. Budapest, however, has remained committed to maintain its high level of troop presence in order to actively contribute to the success of the Alliance, in addition to improving the quality of Hungarian armed forces which gain valuable experience while on overseas missions.
Afghanistan is by far the most important operational theatre for the Hungarian military’s NATO contribution. Hungary joined the NATO/ISAF mission in 2003. Budapest currently has 413 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Besides operating a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the northern province of Baghlan, Hungarian soldiers are also assisting with Afghan National Army and Air Force training. A joint U.S.-Hungarian Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (frequently nicknamed omelette after the official OMLT abbreviation) closely cooperates with an Afghan battalion in Baghlan for in-the-field training and support action. Hungary also has a Special Operations Unit deployed in Afghanistan.
Hungarian forces have sustained seven casualties so far, six of which died in combat. Despite the terrible loss of each life, the majority of the Hungarian officials and the public remain committed to a military presence in Afghanistan.
The financial crisis hit Hungary particularly hard and a slight troop reduction had to be conducted in late 2011. Most cuts only affected the PRT, the efficiency of which was already decreasing due to a worsening security situation. Fighting forces and training units remained largely intact, since they form the core of Hungary’s contribution to the NATO’s success in Afghanistan.
Unlike some European allies, however, Hungary will not withdraw its forces from Afghanistan prior to the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014. In academic circles there was a debate as to whether Hungary should follow the example of other Allied nations, including France, and withdraw sooner in order to save a considerable amount of money and prevent future loss of life. However, when State Secretary Hillary Clinton visited Budapest in late June 2011, the question was already decided and Hungary firmly promised: ‘We went in together, we come out together.’
Despite financial woes and political transition at home, Hungary has been firmly committed to the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan. This commitment speaks to Hungary’s relationship with the United States and trust in transatlantic cooperation.
—Andras Racz is Senior Research Fellow at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs and a Volkswagen Foundation Visiting Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy. His scholarship focuses on EU Foreign and Security Policy, the European Neighborhood Policy, and the Post-Soviet region.