Political Decapitation

By Walder, Serge | Military Review, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

Political Decapitation


Walder, Serge, Military Review


During the war against Iraq, the United States made two attempts to kill Saddam Hussein and decapitate Iraq of its leadership. One signaled the beginning of ground combat; the other was an attack on Hussein's bunker under a restaurant. Serge Walder argues that attacks to decapitate hostile regimes of their political leadership are effective ways to enfeeble the enemy and pave the way for victory.

ON A RAINY autumn night, four men wearing swimsuits and carrying weapons slip ashore near a large beach house. Two swimmer delivery vehicles, launched from a civilian ship in international waters 12 nautical miles away, have transported the men to this location. An intelligence officer is waiting for them on the shore. He has been in the area for weeks to prepare for the mission. The team's objective is to assassinate a local head of state who is spending the night in the beach house.

Near the capital, five other teams are coming ashore with missions to kill specific targets during the night. On completion of their missions, the teams will have eliminated the political and military leadership of this country prior to a major conventional attack.

The outcome of this special operation is called a coup d'etat or a political decapitation. It occupies an important place in modern military planning.

From Nuclear to Conventional Concept

As dramatic as it sounds, the previous scene could be a realistic mission at the beginning of a major armed conflict. The appeal of such action is found in the simplicity of the idea combined with an efficient outcome. The goal of political decapitation is to annihilate by physical elimination part or all of the key governmental players of a country. These can be listed as the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, the Defense Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Two sorts of political decapitation are used. The first is part of an act of war and is used as a strategic move prior to an invasion. The second is carried out during peacetime to influence the political balance of a region. Political decapitation is usually achieved by assassination, but it also can be achieved through kidnapping.

Until the Cold War ended, political decapitation was thought of as a nuclear counter-value strike. The purpose of a nuclear attack was to disable the political and military establishment of an adversary, create a political power failure, and generate chaos at all levels of command and control. It also was a rejection of any political solution that might come about at the end of the conflict.

Although nuclear political decapitation was the best known and most efficient method in terms of destruction, it also was the least popular because of the weapon, symbolic of nuclear holocaust. Even today, with the Cold War in the past, the use of nuclear weapons would create strong adverse effects that might be harmful to the primary goal of the aggressor. Nuclear political decapitation was a product of the Cold War, part of a game of terror played by both superpowers. In theory, the United States and the Soviet Union only aimed their nuclear missiles at each other. Consequently, the end of the Cold War should have put an end to the idea of annihilating a political power by nuclear means.

The Cold War and the conflicts of decolonization saw a number of political decapitation actions, including those attempted by the United States and Soviet Union against smaller states or entities. In all of these engagements, regular or special troops played key roles in the operations. Therefore, this practice was already considered an effective way to achieve a designated political or military objective. Today's political decapitation should be seen as the conventional concept of operation. Of course, it cannot be asserted that no country will ever use nuclear weapons. In today's world, however, the use of specialized units trained for this type of operation seems to be the rational way to proceed. …

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