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Some special ops troops told to lose the beard

By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 19, 2010

ARLINGTON, Va. — For Afghan men, beards are a sign of manhood. And that is why special operations forces tend to look like Grizzly Adams — to earn the trust of locals.

For special operations troops, the beards not only help bring them closer to Afghans, they also set them apart from the conventional forces who traditionally must keep stricter grooming standards.

But the higher ups have decided that at least some of the U.S. special operations forces should get better acquainted with their razors.

“Soldiers who work as training cadre and those in operational activities where we partner with Afghan Commando and other Coalition troops who are themselves mostly clean-shaven, are better prepared, and set a better example if they meet a traditional military appearance standard,” said Bob Coble, spokesman for Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, via e-mail.

“A clean-shaven, ‘squared away’ appearance communicates membership in a disciplined and motivated team, important characteristics for soldiers in most military environments,” he added.

But special operations troops working with Afghan civilians “who see facial hair as proper for adult males” are still able to wear beards, Coble said.

There has been a long-standing struggle between special operations forces and the conventional Army about whether special operations troops can have beards, said Hy Rothstein, a retired Green Beret.

Having a beard helps them bond with Afghan men, regardless of the circumstance, said Rothstein, of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. But he acknowledged that sometimes troops abuse the privilege.

“All of a sudden you’ll see them start wearing baseball caps and mixed uniforms and all kind of weird stuff that angers conventional commanders, and there’s really no reason to take those additional liberties,” he said.

While special operations troops need to do a better job keeping up their appearance, the conventional forces also need to recognize that it helps if special operations forces have a beard, he said.

“That’s what Afghan men expect,” Rothstein explained. “You can say it’s very superficial, and it certainly is, but it’s still real.”

Rothstein retired as a colonel in 1999, but he has made several trips to Afghanistan since then and written a book about the country. He is also an outspoken critic of U.S. war strategy in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Conventional wisdom, whether on how to win in Afghanistan or about beards, has not been wise,” he said.

jeffrey.schogol@stripes.osd.mil

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