QERVEND, Azerbaijan – Six months ago Azerbaijan’s army suffered defeats so monumental that the president fled the country and a fifth of the Transcausasian republic ended up in enemy hands. Critics from all sides castigated the military for gross incompetence in the face of attacks by separatist Armenian forces pushing into the republic from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azeri army is finally starting to pull itself together and has launched a three-pronged offensive to recover captured territories in western Azerbaijan. Officers and men say President Haydar Aliyev, who took over the country last June after former leader Abulfez Elchibey fled in the face of rebellious troops, has played a large role in restoring discipline to the army’s tattered ranks. “Aliyev is responsible for bringing career officers back into the army,” said a field commander on the Fuzuli front, south of Karabakh.
“Before, no one wanted to serve because it was so chaotic. But now, there is a new commitment to the military. We’ve passed a turning point. A real turning point.” Soldiers and foreign observers in the capital Baku said the signs of improvement included lower desertion rates and more volunteers, higher morale in the ranks and more respect for commanding officers.
They also point to a clearly defined chain of command, with ultimate power resting firmly in Aliyev’s hands. “We used to have many commanders, each heading a different fighting group,” said one officer. “When it was politically expedient, any of them could pull all his men back from the front.”
Thousands have been killed in the six-year conflict over Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan populated mainly by Armenians. Both sides say that hundreds of Armenian soldiers have been killed in the latest battles, although such statements are usually exaggerated. One indication that the fighting could be heavier than usual was the appearance of dozens of shiny new ambulances which arrived on the southern front last week.
The new commitment to the war effort has already produced results. The military headquarters of the western front is in the village of Qervend, less than 12 miles from the key Azeri town of Agdam. Agdam is the on the border with Karabakh, about 16 miles from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian forces accused Azerbaijan of launching artillery attacks from Agdam and captured the town last July.
If the Azeris take Agdam, then Stepanakert will once again be within reach of their Grad multiple-missile launchers and Azerbaijan will be able to enter cease-fire negotiations from a position of greater strength.
One thing the new-look Azeri army still lacks, however, is trained officers. In an attempt to overcome the shortage some soldiers were promoted after they demonstrated prowess in
action. Other officers will be forced to give up cushy desk jobs. “The officers gathered here will be sent to the front,” Aliyev told a group of former military bureaucrats in a televised address last week.
“It may be most of the officers here served in recruitment offices and in army units stationed in Baku, but now you should continue your service in military units at the battlefronts.” Newspapers have reported that the general recruitment campaign has been stepped up, increasing the stream of men going to training camps and then to Karabakh.
On the southern front, Azeri soldiers camp out in trenches stretched across grassy plains formerly crossed only by sheep — and the Armenian military. “We’re actually on Karabakh territory here,” said one soldier, pointing north to where the noise of explosions was muffled by heavy fog. “The Armenians are about two kilometres (1.2 miles) away,” he said.
To the north of Karabakh the front line is a mountain range where fighting is made difficult by snow and cold, Azeri Defense Ministry officials said. Nevertheless, some fighting has also been reported there.