Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Growing beards to tame the Afghan insurgency
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]