Two reports from Afghanistan within the week indicate more clearly than ever that things are going wrong there. First came the report that the Army had ordered its Special Forces soldiers to shave their beards and to wear regular Army uniforms. Then the press reported that the Army was deploying artillery to Afghanistan.
The two reports are related. To understand how, we must understand what the beards meant.
Those Special Forces who grew beards in Afghanistan and wore local garb did so as part of their effort to live with and befriend the local population. This process started from the moment when the Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan. Befriending local populations is the best way to get intelligence on what is going on and to recruit the locals to fight with us. Getting this intelligence and cooperation is the best, often the only, way to find and destroy the enemy when he is not operating in organized conventional military forces. This is the case in Afghanistan with the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. These remnants live among local populations and cannot be distinguished from them without the help of the locals or, if the remnants hide in remote areas, cannot be found without information supplied by the locals. Lacking this information, we fail to find the enemy or end up arresting or shooting civilians. As these mistakes continue, resentment grows and the local population is less inclined to help us, making it even harder to find and destroy the enemy.
Not only does befriending the local population help the Special Forces find the enemy, it prevents the enemy from finding the Special Forces. If the locals like the Special Forces, they will tell them when the enemy scouts are doing reconnaissance of their camps or when enemy teams are in the area. This kind of intelligence allows Special Forces to protect themselves and by extension to help protect other American forces in country.
The order for the Special Forces to shave their beards and wear regular Army uniforms is the latest indication that our strategy in Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction, away from the kind of operations that are most likely to allow us to achieve our objective, destroying what is left of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
How does the artillery fit in? According to the Press reports, the artillery was to be used to defend Bagram air base, a major operating center. The base and American operations near it and in other parts of Afghanistan are under attack. The artillery is apparently for defensive purposes. If so, it suggests that we are losing control on the ground in Afghanistan. This is the inevitable consequence of a strategy that has failed to focus on working with and through the local population as the key to victory.
The order to shave beards is, of course, not the direct cause of the deployment of artillery to Afghanistan or our deteriorating position there. These events result from months of fighting the wrong kind of war. Despite all the publicity they received for their efforts early in the war, the Special Forces have not been in charge in Afghanistan. Regular Army units and their commanders have given the orders and they have pursued strategies that work in regular warfare but are inappropriate for the kind of conflict that is going on in Afghanistan. Beardless artillerymen make sense in such regular wars but bearded Americans on horseback in Afghan clothes won the opening weeks of the war in Afghanistan. They could still bring victory.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.