Hungarian Conservative

How 9/11 Changed Hungarian Defence Policy

'Tribute of Ligths' displayed where the WTC twin towers used to stand in New York City, New York on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks
Although Hungary had already cooperated with the alliance during the Yugoslav wars, 9/11 was the first major event when the country had to demonstrate its commitment to the alliance and collective defence as a full-fledged member of NATO.

22 years ago, on 11 September 2001, the United States was the target of a series of vicious terrorist attacks. The collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon marked the dawn of a new era in the history of the US-led Western alliance. The aftermath of the tragic events was also decisive for the security policy development and international perception of Hungary as a recent NATO member.

The War on Terror

The attack on the United States, and more broadly on the Western alliance, trembled the entire world in 2001.

The fall of the World Trade Center’s twin towers has been interpreted in many ways as the mark of a new era and a strategic shift in many ways.

The attack was not only a defining event in marking the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, but also signalled the end of the US ‘unipolar moment’ and of the American hegemony after the fall of the Iron Curtain, tearing down the belief in the sanctity of the great power. The tragic events also seemed to settle the then-common academic debate on whether the next century would bring the end of history and the globalisation of the American political and social order, as written by Francis Fukuyama, or rather conflicts along civilisational fault lines as argued by Samuel P. Huntington.

The event was also historical in the sense that

it was the first and only time that NATO’s Article 5 on collective defence was invoked.

In essence, Article 5 states an attack on a single member of the alliance is considered an attack on the alliance as a whole, thus each ally comes to the defence of the attacked. In October 2001, President George Bush declared a global War on Terror.

Under Operation Enduring Freedom, US and allied military forces invaded Afghanistan, home to the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation, believed to have planned and carried out the vicious attacks. Under UN Resolution 1386, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established, a multinational military mission tasked with building up the Afghan political and security architecture after the fall of the Taliban leadership. According to NATO’s website, ISAF was one of the largest coalitions in history and NATO’s longest and most challenging mission to date. At its height, the force was more than 130,000 troops strong from 50 NATO and partner countries. NATO replaced ISAF with the Resolute Support Mission in 2014, until the withdrawal of the international forces from the country in 2021.

On 20 March 2003, in the name of the War on Terror, the United States, under the so-called Coalition of the Willing, launched an attack on Iraq to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein

and disarm it of its alleged weapons of mass destruction. The war in Iraq has seen limited support from allies without a mandate from the UN.

The War on Terror has resulted in the longest and most expensive string of asymmetric conflicts between Western coalition forces and radical Islamist movements in the region, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to different extents in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, and Syria. Not to mention Pakistan, where, after ten years of a stalwart manhunt, al-Qaeda terror leader Osama bin Laden was found and eliminated on 2 May 2011.

Two decades of war on terrorism have transformed Western military thinking and warfare as well. Precision drone strikes and reconnaissance have been valorized, and counter-insurgency operations and guerrilla warfare doctrines have come to the fore. Even with their size and technological superiority, the Western coalition forces were often able to achieve only limited success against insurgents who could use their knowledge of their country’s geography and culture to their advantage. Not to mention the failures of nation-building and democracy export, which turned the War on Terror into the ‘Forever Wars’ for the United States.

How Was Hungary Involved?

The events of 11 September 2001 and the resulting security situation also had a major impact on Hungary, having joined NATO on 12 March 1999. Although Hungary had already cooperated with the alliance during the Yugoslav wars, it now had to demonstrate its commitment to the alliance and collective defence as a full member. And so it did.

Since i2003, many Hungarian soldiers have been deployed in NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, Hungarian soldiers have taken on guarding, medical, and engineering roles; while Hungary was the first of the newcomer NATO members to take a leading role of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Baghlan province,

where it implemented more than 1,000 development projects during its six years of activity. The Hungarian contingent was at its highest in 2013, when 620 Hungarian soldiers were in Afghanistan. Seven Hungarians were killed and five wounded in the operations of two decades in the country.

Like the international community, support for the Iraq war also divided Hungarian public opinion and politics. The Hungarian socialist-liberal government pledged support for the United States in its mission in Iraq and signed the controversial ‘Letter of the Eight’, in which Hungary joined the leaders of Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, and the Czech Republic in supporting the US and rejecting France and Germany’s opposition to the Iraqi intervention. The opposition at the time, led by Viktor Orbán, strongly criticized the government’s support for the mission, citing the absence of a UN mandate. Be said, despite its initial support, Hungary did not take part in the invasion of Iraq. Only later, after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government and the UN mandate given did it take part in the mission providing logistics and training for the Iraqi forces.

The internal political clash over the Iraq mission was part of a wider debate that also shaped the country’s security and defence policy at that time.

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Hungary had to set new directions for its foreign policy, security policy, and military forces after its liberation from Soviet oppression and its gaining membership in NATO in 1999. The global war on terror was an epochal change to which it also had to respond in its doctrines. In 2002, amid heated political debate, the Hungarian government launched a defence review to create a voluntary, capability-based, fundable force. Following the review, aligned with the international practice, the Hungarian Defence Forces’ tasks included counterterrorism, international crisis management, peace operations, and peace enforcement.

In line with this, the Hungarian armed forces started to develop new mission capabilities (e.g. CIMIC, PSYOPS and HUMINT teams, medical capabilities),

including the creation of special operations forces that could be immediately deployed in international peace operations. The 34th László Bercsényi Special Operations Battalion converted to perform special operations capabilities, including direct operations, as well as military assistance tasks deep reconnaissance.

At the same time, the equipment of the special forces was also modernized with weapons used by US and British special forces. Meanwhile, the ambition level of the Hungarian forces was expanded from 700 to 1,000 (now 1,200) to participate in foreign missions.

Participation in international missions under the flag of the global War on Terror following the events of 11 September 2001 has had an immediate positive impact on the perception of Hungary as a new NATO ally. Involvement in the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan has also had a positive effect on the country’s security and defence strategy, as well as its force development. In addition to the gradual evolution of Hungarian strategic thinking and military capabilities, Hungarian soldiers have gained experience in NATO and other international environments, which remains crucial for the defence of the country and the posture of the Hungarian Defence Forces.

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Although Hungary had already cooperated with the alliance during the Yugoslav wars, 9/11 was the first major event when the country had to demonstrate its commitment to the alliance and collective defence as a full-fledged member of NATO.