One Reason You Shouldn’t Go to Afghanistan With a Beard

Your facial hair says something about you in Afghanistan -- especially if you're a foreign soldier.

Scott Nelson/Getty Images
Scott Nelson/Getty Images

Few images epitomize Western fears of terrorism since the September 11 attacks better than that of the long-bearded jihadist, such as Osama bin Laden himself. Ironically, many Afghans have come to share the West’s pogonophobia. But Afghans don’t just fear the bearded Taliban. They also fear bearded Western special operations forces.

The wearing of beards by U.S. and allied special operations forces dates back to the invasion in 2001, when small teams of troops worked with Northern Alliance forces to overthrow the Taliban. The Western men grew beards in part to blend in on arduous and isolated missions in rural parts of Afghanistan, where long beards are still typically the norm and were the law under Taliban rule.

Beards remain, by and large, the distinctive hallmark of special operations forces in Afghanistan. They allow Afghans to distinguish regular U.S. and allied military units from special operations forces, the highly trained teams like the Green Berets and Navy SEALs. But for most Afghans, these beards now carry a negative connotation.

In Kandahar province’s Zhari district, elders refer to the "bearded Americans," who they say behave very badly, and the "shaven Americans," who aren’t so bad. Likewise, in Uruzgan province, locals have complained about "bearded Americans" using foul language and manhandling respected community elders and government officials.

Of course, not all members of special operations forces — U.S. or allied — wear beards, and not all regular troops are cleanshaven. Moreover, special operations soldiers tend not to be Rambo-types; they are often unassuming, if quietly confident, men, chosen as much for their mental as their physical aptitude.

But (often bearded) special operations forces are responsible for the most dangerous and controversial missions. Special operations forces, not regular troops, for instance, capture and kill key al Qaeda and Taliban figures. Apart from the civilian casualties these operations sometimes cause, they also bring these soldiers into close contact with Afghan society at places and times where it is most vulnerable and sensitive. Special operations forces, for example, perform late-night raids of Afghan homes, a deeply humiliating and dishonorable event in the local culture — in particular, the searching of women’s quarters.

It is so shameful that some Afghans have cited the searches as the reason for their joining the growing ranks of the internally displaced. As one former resident of Khas Uruzgan recounted to local researchers, "I went to Spin Boldak to save my dignity. We don’t want to see our wives and daughters without their shawls, searched in front of us. We were humiliated."

Further, these missions sometimes end in arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions at Bagram Airfield, where the moral, legal, and political conundrums thrown up by the prison there perhaps equal those of Guantánamo Bay, but with much less public attention. And, in the past, the missions have even caused problems for regional International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commanders whose efforts to build trust with locals were complicated by controversial special forces operations about which they knew nothing in advance.

This should provide those advocating a renewed narrow focus on the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan with food for thought. It may seem a cheaper and cleaner alternative to the counterinsurgency approach the Pentagon advocates. But it would come at a high cost for the local population and for the West’s reputation, relying on the most resented soldiers, compromising the United States’ goal of winning hearts and minds.

It is significant that the man now charged with turning things around in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was previously the head of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and oversaw these types of direct-action operations by special forces. By some accounts, McChrystal has adopted the Army’s broader counterinsurgency mission with all the zeal of a convert. Serious questions remain about whether even a fully resourced counterinsurgency approach will work in Afghanistan, but a key measure of its success will be one that McChrystal has himself established: the protection of civilians.

This goal has led McChrystal to place, very publicly, limits on the use of air power by coalition forces. The high civilian death toll in the recent airstrike on a hijacked oil tanker in Kunduz province demonstrated both the importance of this new injunction and the difficulty of implementing it.

An equal measure of McChrystal’s commitment to protect Afghans will be how he uses the special operations forces he once led and whose activities remain shrouded in secrecy. In a recent speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the ISAF commander emphasized yet again that Afghans need protecting: from the Taliban and other insurgents who kill, maim, exploit, and extort, as well as from the warlords whose predatory instincts have not been dulled by the fact that some are today ministers in the national government.

But as McChrystal made clear, if the West is to win in Afghanistan, sometimes the allied forces will "need to protect [Afghans] from our own actions" as well.

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