Would the Hungarians Cut & Run Under Fire?

As the 2,500 Polish troops deploy this week into Kuwait, preliminary to their taking over responsibility for their security sector in Iraq at the beginning of next month, they can at least be thankful that not too many of them read Hungarian. (Indeed, as we know well, few people outside Hungary and the Hungarian populations in the regions of the immediate vicinity enjoy that privilege.) You remember that mortaring last Thursday of the Iraqi base in the future Polish sector? It may have not caused any sort of casualties, it may not even have caused any material damage other than some clods of earth being transferred from here to there, but that base will be for the use of not only the Poles but their allied troops as well, including Romanians and Hungarians, thank you very much. If there were incoming mortar rounds then, there surely could easily be more where those came from, and the Hungarians are already starting to get nervous, if recent comments to the (Hungarian) press by defense minister Ferenc Juhász (in English: Frank Shepherd) are any indication.

Magyar Hírlap covers the story in an article whose title tells it like it is: Háborús helyzetben gondolnának kivonulásra, or “In a war-situation they would think about a withdrawal.” The article goes on, in its first sentence: “There is no explicit criterion as to how many explosions have to happen before the Hungarian soldiers would be withdrawn out of Iraq, Ferenc Juhász told our newspaper.” That’s good to know, but it’s also clear that one such explosion too many and they would be high-tailing it out of there. As Juhász explained directly to the paper, “We’re not sending our soldiers over there to fight, but above all to ensure the maintenance of the peace. That is what we are authorized to do under the terms of our mandate.”

Of course, a withdrawal would be a final, worst-case step towards solving the eventual problem of attacks on Hungarian forces. But such attacks would necessarily call an end – if only temporarily – to the execution of the peace-keeping missions those Hungarian troops would be in-country to perform. And if they persist: “After this, on the basis of very serious diplomatic and other understandings it could come to the point where [we say]: this far, and no further.” What’s more, such a decision would ultimately be the matter only for Hungarian authorities: “whether others like it, or whether they don’t, it is the [Hungarian] political leadership which has to know how to decide what the right thing will be to do in such a situation.”

But, Minister, it’s also true that all the troops that the Hungarian army is sending to Iraq for peace-keeping are volunteers. Shouldn’t they already know that the mission could be dangerous? No, Juhász replies, it’s more a matter of Hungarian public opinion. Although it’s true that Parliament voted to authorize this deployment without any dissenting vote, Hungarian public opinion does not support it unconditionally. In the current national political climate, if the deployment seems to be turning into a useless exercise – Hungarians being wounded and killed for no seeming purpose – then the government will have to weigh the domestic pressure for such a withdrawal against the inevitable loss of prestige for Hungary and its armed forces that would result.

Apparently Hungarian military authorities have already been in contact with the Polish officers who will be in charge in the sector. If such a withdrawal back to Hungary should happen, it has already been agreed that the Hungarian government will be fully liable for the costs involved – which I suppose must be some sort of a relief for whoever is bankrolling the operation (it’s mainly the Americans, I suspect).

Magyar Hirlap covers the issue well in this article, but that doesn’t mean that the story was anywhere near the top of domestic news coverage. In particular, from Magyar Nemzet – the opposition newspaper – I found only this brief mention, taken from the wires of MTI, the Hungarian Press Agency, entitled “Ferenc Juhász on the dangers facing the Hungarian peace mission to Iraq.” This article merely (if more briefly) restates Juhász’s message: “In Iraq there is gunfire everyday,” he reminds us, and “we don’t intend to be sending heroes over there.” Not a hint of criticism, even from the FIDESZ opposition who are behind Magyar Nemzet – not a hint that maybe there are troops from other nations over there who will be relying on the Hungarian troops to do their assigned job and not just run back home if/when things get a little dangerous. No hint of a reminder that, if every national military contingent over there were to take this attitude, then the situation in Iraq could turn very messy indeed.

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