Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Growing beards to tame the Afghan insurgency

November 8, 2009


If you were on the U.S-led coalition base in Bagram in Afghanistan soon after the 2001 invasion, you couldn’t help noticing soldiers with long, Taliban-style beards and dressed in light brown shalwar kamaeez down to the sandals.

They kept to themselves. They weren’t the friendly sort and before long you figured out these were the Special Forces who had fought along side the Northern Alliance in small teams to overthrow the Taliban and were then hunting its remnants and members of al Qaeda. The men grew beards to blend in during difficult and isolated missions in the Afghan countryside.

Close up, on the base some people thought looked like a little bit of America with its mountains of food, gym, and the easy banter of men and women soldiers, the Western men with the flowing beards stood out.

Eight years on, the Special Forces ops are still trying to master the disguise. But the men are still no closer to ordinary Afghans. In fact, the locals have grown to be especially wary of the Special Forces as this article on the Foreign Policy website says. The beards apparently only serve to allow ordinary people to distinguish them from regular U.S. and allied military units.

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, the article says. 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 the members of the Special Forces go around with beards and not all the regular troops are clean shaven.  And to paint them as Rambo-types would be equally inaccurate, most of them are probably unassuming men, chosen as much for their mental as their physical aptitude.

But because they undertake the most dangerous and controversial missions, they tend to take much of the flak. They are involved in the capture and killing of al Qaeda and Taliban figures, which apart from causing civilian casualties also brings them in close contact with Afghan society at sensitive times. “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,” the article says.


It has been written by Anthony Bubalo, the programme director for West Asia at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and Susanne Schmeidl a co-founder of the Liaison Office, an Afghan nongovernmental organization that since 2003 has worked with tribes in southeast and southern Afghanistan on governance, stability, and security.

The renewed focus on the Special Forces is important because of the ongoing debate on whether the United States should embrace the idea of a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign with its population-centric strategy as advocated by General Stanley A. McChrystal or counterterrorism as Vice President Joe Biden argues. In that scenario there would be greater use of Special Forces and unmanned drones to disrupt al Qaeda.

One Special Forces major  who spent time both in Afghanistan and Iraq has written a paper arguing that one way way to undermine the Afghan insurgency is to return in part to the strategy that ousted the Taliban in the first place: embed small, highly skilled and almost completely autonomous units with tribes across Afghanistan.

Much like the men who worked with the Northern Alliance in 2001, the unit which Major. Jim Gant calls Tribal Engagement Teams, would wear Afghan garb and live in Afghan villages for extended periods, training, equipping and fighting alongside tribal militias.

Here’s his 45-page paper called One Tribe at a Time that has kicked off much debate.

Just as the Sunni tribesmen, dubbed the Sons of Iraq, turned against foreign al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq, Major Gant argues that the Tribal Engagement Teams can counter al-Qaeda networks in Afghanistan by creating or strengthening indigenous fighting forces built upon local militias.

[Pictures at the Bagram air base and Afghan women walking in front of a U.S. soldier]


Guerrilla warfare operates on the principles of attrition. If the enemy is still, then strike them and withdraw before any heavy fighting begins. If the enemy attacks, then disperse to avoid any casualties.

For decades now, this tactic has worn down better equipped armies. But as usual, the technology is adapting to the situation. And it will be technology which will win the wars against unconventional tactics.

A two pronged approach is needed.

We need to keep the troop surge pushing the enemy. This means that the Taliban are always withdrawing, as per the doctrine of unconventional warfare.

But then you let the drones do the hard work. The Taliban can’t run and hide forever. They need to sleep eventually. And drones don’t sleep.

Once the Taliban can no longer count on avoiding casualties by hiding from conventional fighting, the war is on our terms again. Against drones, there is no real defence.

Our success against insurgency tactics depends on our ability to pin the enemy down, and inflict the very casualties that guerrilla warfare seeks to avoid.

For a small insurgency with 8000 men, the loss of small groups of ten and five will add up. And each leader taken down will reduce the ability of the taliban to operate as a unit. On the day when the terrorists can no longer risk grouping together for fear of drone attacks, the war is won.

It is true that collateral damage will result. But hopefully the villagers will learn that when they hide enemy forces in their houses, they lose their protection as civilians.

Posted by Hmmm | Report as abusive


Concur with said statement. Not to be a jack***, but have you read Sun Tzu?

Posted by Jack Black | Report as abusive

I have, actually. It is an interesting read. Not only because of the information, but the perspective.

All the tactics which insurgents use today, not to mention the tactics used by modern military forces, are all based on warfare concepts which have existed as long as human history has.

The only real difference is the technology, and how it can be applied to new situations.

Posted by Hmmm | Report as abusive

If the US is truly winning this war, it should be the Taliban blending and dressing in American style.

Posted by Seymour | Report as abusive

But is a troop surge enough ? Here is a piece by presidential candidate and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani arguing that what Afghanistan needs is good governance.
“The debate over Gen. McChrystal’s proposed strategy has been reduced to the number of troops, but the issue is more complex. Military success will depend not simply on troop levels, but on political victory in creating security, governance, development, and peace.”
Click here for the rest of the article : 09/11/10/Please_Send_More_Than_Troops?pa ge=0,1

Posted by Sanjeev Miglani | Report as abusive

Fiendishly brilliant suggestion that, if you have a taste for never-ending war. Generations of embedded sleeper CIA Black Ops later, no-one will know whether they’re fighting good guys or bad guys, or if the bad guys they’re fighting are really bad or just pretending to be bad – or have a clue why they’re fighting there at all. Actually no-one will care why, except the crooks who make tons of money from continual warfare and tearing the blazes out of other people’s culture… Wait a minute, that’s pretty much the situation we have there now.

The sane move would be to cut to the chase and get the hell out of Afghanistan, pronto, before those alleged “enemies of the United States” get the same idea. And reciprocate, if they haven’t already .

After all, if the U.S. does it, it must be right, right?

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

If war is insane, then the only sane move is to surrender.

But if you choose that path, expect to see a world ruled by the insane soon enough.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

A cursory read of ‘On the Border With Crook’ by a Maj. Bourke, adjutant to General Crook, would state the case for well-supplied colums of soldiers on mules to push the Taliban and al-Queda. Technology will not win asymmetrical warfare-boots on the ground (or in this case, hooves on the ground), updated with swarms of drones, air-power and air-supply would be decisive. Collateral damage is immaterial- as per the air war during WWII- citizens that support a renegade and murderous regeim are also responsible. Until we decide to fight a total war-we are doomed to a long and difficult struggle with monstrous costs in blood and treasure.

Posted by High Country | Report as abusive

If you guys are so clever, perhaps one of you could explain how come the Pushtoons have never been defeated by the invaders. I have a theory but I a’nt going to tell you the secret. Just a small tip, the Pushtoons do not fight a guerrilla war, and do not confuse yourself with the Jehadis who are volunteers from the foreign countries!

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

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