KABUL—As the U.S. military garners increasing counterinsurgency experience in America's long-standing war in Afghanistan, soldiers are questioning one military restriction that has long been the norm within the U.S. armed forces: the prohibition against beards.
The military says it has good reasons for the beard ban for most American troops—including hygiene, soldierly discipline, and the ability to get a good seal on gas masks should troops need them.
There is an exception, though, for special operations forces to enable them to better blend with locals. Senior military officials point out that special operations forces have more experience and maturity than other troops, so that lax grooming standards will not lead to a degeneration of other forms of discipline.
Still, the restriction often garners some eye-rolling among regular troops who think that growing beards would also benefit them in interactions with Afghans. Troops increasingly argue that beard growth is hardly a disciplinary slippery slope for soldiers and marines on long tours with a great deal of interaction with the locals.
This is not so much an issue in the comparatively less conservative capital city of Kabul, where many Afghan men don't wear beards. But in other areas of the country, the more tradition-oriented regions, beards are a symbol of manhood—just as much a sign of social norms as the clean-shaven faces of U.S. soldiers are regarded as a symbol of American military order.
Some U.S. troops are beginning to buck the beard rule, however, both with and without the permission of senior commanders.
One soldier in the violent border area of Kunar province estimates that his combat outpost gets attacked almost daily. But when the base received a visit recently from a commanding officer, the soldier recalls, "the main thing" he told the soldiers is that they needed to shave more frequently. They did shave, but they felt they gathered better intelligence with locals when they were unshaven, as locals felt more comfortable talking to bearded men.
Where troops come down on beards is often the difference between the junior and senior officer ranks.
While junior officers are quickly becoming used to a counterinsurgency approach to combat that tends to be nonlinear and more focused on influencing perceptions, says a senior military official here, some are less willing to be nontraditional or to do away with disciplinary checklists that include having a short haircut and a close shave. Sometimes with reason, he adds. "You could argue that we're not here to be liked; we're here to be respected."
But occasionally junior and senior officers are on the same page. One junior soldier was given special dispensation by his commander to wear a beard since he works in close proximity with Afghan security forces. That has been invaluable, the junior officer adds, in helping to build trust and garner the respect of his Afghan coworkers.
But he has also taken special precautions. Every time they go outside the wire, at least one of the Afghan security forces he travels with carries along shaving cream and a razor. The soldier has instructed the Afghans he works with to shave him should he be injured or die.
He has also told his parents to stand up for his commander should the junior officer die without being shaven. In the meantime, he says, he feels empowered, both by his commanders and by the Afghan forces with whom he works.
There is an Afghan saying that one brother will fight as hard as 10 neighbors, the soldier explains. And the Afghan security forces here say that they consider this soldier a brother to them.