Late on Tuesday, 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, yet this accident should serve as a reminder of the invaluable contributions and sacrifices that this small, predominately Muslim country has made for NATO and American forces when other coalition allies have been pulling out of Afghanistan.

This 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.

In a recent visit to Baku, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates personally thanked the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, for the Azeri’s “part in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the troops they have there—and also a civilian presence—but (through) ground transportation and allowing over flights.”

Furthermore, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said recently that Azerbaijan is ready to further contribute 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 of Azeri’s involvement, and the U.S. ambassador to Baku Matthew J. Bryza has also recently expressed U.S. appreciation of Azerbaijan’s role not just 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.

As Azerbaijan charts its sovereign future, you may be sure that the United States and your other NATO partners will support you.

Beyond Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and the U.S. plan to develop a strategic security partnership. Through cooperation between the armed forces, this partnership would 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 U.S. should continue to support not only because it is a reliable a partner in Afghanistan but also because it is a strategic ally essential for security of the Caspian massive energy supplies and in keeping Iran in check. A strong American relationship with Azerbaijan could reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas. Azerbaijan can also be a helpful partner in dealing with its neighbors Iran and Russia and serve as a model for a moderate, culturally Islamic secular state that has been active in combating global terrorism.

As much as this recent plane crash is a tragic event for NATO allies and for Azerbaijan, it is times like these that should make us appreciate the important roles small allies have played for America and will continuing playing in the future.

Co-Authored by Robert Nicholson.

Robert is a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. Click here for more information on interning at Heritage.