BELGRADE, Serbia — NATO war planes hit tanks with deadly precision, with the aim of degrading a despot's army and leveling the playing field for a ragtag rebel force. In many ways, the air strikes on Libya mirror the Western alliance's Serbia campaign 12 years ago.
Both conflicts targeted easily identifiable villains — Moammar Gadhafi today, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic back then. On both occasions, NATO scrambled its war planes after both leaders ignored international warnings to cease bloody crackdowns against opponents — Kosovo Albanians then, Libyan citizens now.
The parallels extend into how the campaigns have developed. Like over Serbia, the Libya no-fly zone has turned in effect into NATO air cover designed to benefit the insurgents by destroying Gadhafi's armor that has given him battlefield superiority.
There are differences in timing, planning and international support. Unlike the air campaign against Serbia, the Libyan operation was organized relatively quickly and its aims, if not its means, are backed not only by NATO but also by the U.N. Security Council, the Arab League and nations outside the Western alliance.
But "in a military sense, these are very similar operations," says Serbian military analyst Sasa Radic.
Even the battlefield tactics used by both leaders evoke comparisons in seeking to protect their heavy weapons from being picked off by targeted air strikes.
Gadhafi's forces are now using "battle wagons" — minivans and SUVs fitted with weapons that are harder to distinguish from vehicles used by the rebels. Milosevic, too, pulled most of his battle tanks out of combat in favor of lighter forces, parking them in hospitals, schools and other areas where a strike risked civilian casualties.
The success of his tactics became obvious when a mighty column of Serbian armor was seen withdrawing from Kosovo at the end of the campaign. NATO ground troops that moved in on their heels counted only 14 destroyed tank hulks in all of the province after 78 days of air attacks.
No evidence has surfaced about whether Gadhafi loyalists have taken a page from the book of Serbian tactics — but there could be a link. Before Yugoslavia broke up in the series of ethnic wars that culminated in the Serb-Albanian conflict in Kosovo, many of Gadhafi's officers were trained by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav armed forces.
For all the battlefield similarities, there is one major difference in the two campaigns, however. For Kosovo, there was an endgame. Not so for Libya.
Once the allied coalition jelled 12 years ago, there was agreement that Milosevic's hand had to be lifted forever from Kosovo. NATO-dominated forces moved into the province in June. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with the support of the U.S. and most EU countries.
In the case of Libya, Washington and its allies have said the air campaign was not launched to eliminate Gadhafi. And they have not set an ultimate target beyond the immediate imperative of reducing the chances of large-scale retaliation on Gadhafi foes by driving the dictator's jets from the air and destroying his military hardware on the ground.
That effort is now mired in a combination of bad weather grounding NATO planes and evasive tactics by Gadhafi forces, with the rebels retreating this week under the pressure of a renewed eastern offensive by Gadhafi's better-armed and better-trained ground troops. U.S. plans to pull out of the air campaign and bank on other NATO nations taking up the slack could further hurt the rebels.
Any resulting gains by Gadhafi forces could mean that ultimately the divisive issue of sending in ground forces may have to be addressed. Washington has ruled out that option, but it was such a threat that ultimately forced Milosevic to cede Kosovo.
And while friend and foe were clearly defined in Serbia, questions about who the rebels are have escalated as the U.S.-led coalition approaches its third week of attacks against Gadhafi's forces.
Under questioning by Congress, NATO's top commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, said last week that officials had seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah involvement with the rebel forces. And he acknowledged goals and operations remain fluid.
"As you look at the spectrum of how this unfolds it's premature to say what is our exit strategy," Stavridis said Tuesday.
Radic, the Serbian military analyst, says the lack of direction sets the stage for a potentially violent scenario.
"It is not clear what the final goal is — getting rid of Gadhafi, or the partition of Libya?" he says. "The radical option would be to help rebels get to Tripoli to confront Gadhafi.
"But that would undoubtedly lead to a bloodbath."
Jahn reported from Vienna.