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.