K A B U L, Afghanistan, Sept. 13, 2002 -- In Afghanistan, U.S. special forces have guarded the country's president, ridden horseback into battle, and even played the Afghan game of Buz Kashi. All the while, they've worn beards and casual dress.
They are the military's elite, and one way they stand out from their comrades is by blending in with the locals.
One Marine Corps colonel, who like all special forces soldiers prefers to remain anonymous, interprets the rules this way: "I've told my men it's all right if they look like they work in a 7-Eleven, just so long as they don't look like they robbed one," he says.
But now the Pentagon has revoked the privilege of whiskers. American special forces soldiers have been ordered to shave their beards and adopt a more conventional, military style of dress.
The troops say that is a mistake. The casual dress code, soldiers say, makes sense for security purposes. They say being clean-shaven will make them stand out in the crowd, possibly drawing the attention of their enemies.
But aid workers have complained for months about the dress code. They say the local population has had trouble distinguishing between soldiers and civilians.
"If Afghans who may have a grudge against the military can't tell the difference between the military and foreign aid workers, it puts all of us at risk," says Paul Barker of the aid group CARE International.
Karzai Assassination Attempt Sparked New Concern
Until now those pleas largely fell on deaf ears. Last month, the most that military commanders would concede was that soldiers would wear parts of a uniform, along with an American flag patch. They also agreed to carry their weapons in the open.
It appears to have taken an assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai to get the Pentagon's attention. Top officials reportedly didn't think the photographs that appeared in the press of special forces soldiers helping protect Karzai reflected well on the troops.
Now, the order has come down: time to shave.
Afghans are somewhat bemused by the controversy. But they are no strangers to the politics of facial hair. After all, the Taliban required men to wear beards.
At Brothers Barbershop in Kabul today, the customers couldn't understand why the Pentagon would force soldiers to shave.
"In Afghanistan, you are not a man without at least a little beard," said one man, who was getting a trim.
The special forces would beg to differ.