- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2011

America has sacrificed a lot fighting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan - but we are not alone. The United States and our NATO allies are getting help from places many Americans can’t find on the map.

Late on July 5, an Azerbaijani tanker plane crashed in Afghanistan en route to U.S.-NATO Bagram Air Base with a load of fuel. The United States and NATO should mourn the nine crew members who were killed on board, but this accident also should serve as a reminder of the invaluable contributions and sacrifices this small, predominately Muslim country has made for NATO and American forces when other coalition allies have been pulling out of Afghanistan. The supply plane flew from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, which is located in the strategic region of the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea littoral. Azerbaijan and its neighbor Georgia are important transit countries for U.S. and NATO troops and supplies to Afghanistan via a network of ports and railroads, which is known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).

In a recent visit to Baku, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates personally thanked the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, for the Azeris’ “part in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the troops they have there - and also a civilian presence - but [by providing] ground transportation and allowing overflights.”

Furthermore, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said recently that Azerbaijan is ready to contribute further to stability in Afghanistan by doubling the number of servicemen it sent to Afghanistan in 2009. This is in addition to humanitarian assistance already sent to Afghanistan, including doctors and engineers.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen last month stated his appreciation for Azerbaijan’s involvement, and the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew J. Bryza, also recently has expressed U.S. appreciation of that country’s role in Afghanistan: “NATO today is proud to count Azerbaijan as a partner. Azerbaijan’s contributions to security missions - from Kosovo to Iraq and Afghanistan - have been steadfast and professional. … Clearly, Azerbaijan’s ties to NATO enhance security, strengthen democratic values and support the processes of political and military modernization and reform.”

Beyond Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the U.S. plan to develop a strategic security partnership. Through cooperation between their respective armed forces, this partnership will become integral in the protection of Azerbaijan’s vast energy infrastructure in the Caspian Sea and its ability to transport its oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe while bypassing Russia.

Based on these positive developments, Azerbaijan represents one post-Soviet, Muslim state that the United States must continue to support not only because it is a reliable partner in Afghanistan, but also because it is a strategic ally essential for the security of the Caspian’s massive energy supplies and for keeping Iran in check. A stronger American relationship with Azerbaijan could reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas. Azerbaijan also serves as a model moderate, culturally Islamic secular state that has been active in combating global terrorism.

As much as the recent plane crash is a tragic event for Azerbaijan and the NATO allies, it is times like these that should make us appreciate the important roles smaller allies have played in America’s efforts to build security in a volatile region of the world.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Robert Nicholson is a member of the Young Leaders program at Heritage.