The strong showing by Special Operations forces in Afghanistan has sent their stock soaring higher than at any time since John Wayne swaggered across the screen in "The Green Berets" (1968). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is working on a plan to double the Special Operations Command's budget and to give it the lead role in fighting the global war on terrorism.
But at the same time, the Pentagon is giving signs that it may not have fully figured out how to use its best troops.
The first such sign is the now-infamous order to Special Forces in Afghanistan to shave their beards. This seemingly innocuous directive, issued because of strong pressure from the Army high command, has infuriated many of the "snake eaters," who claim it shows that desk-bound brass hats don't understand their demanding duties.
There is a long tradition of irregular forces going "native" in order to blend in. T.E. Lawrence became a master of the craft while leading Arab guerrillas against Turkish troops in the Arabian peninsula in World War I.
He became known as "Lawrence of Arabia" because of his flowing Bedouin robes, but his attire wasn't purely a romantic conceit. Capt. William H.I. Shakespear, another British agent operating in Arabia at the time, refused to dress like an Arab and was picked off by an enemy sharpshooter in a battle in 1915 because his British uniform made him an easy target.
U.S. Special Operations officers fear something similar could happen to their men in a place such as Afghanistan if they have to operate in standard-issue camouflage. They are also concerned that it would be harder for clean-shaven infidels to win the respect of tribal chieftains in a land where beards are taken as a sign of manliness and maturity.
Regular Army officers are right to fret about going too far in relaxing "grooming standards." Certainly in a conventional military unit, spit and polish are necessary to create battle effectiveness. One of Gen. George S. Patton's first actions, upon taking command of the dispirited II Corps in Tunisia in March 1943, after their maulings at Sidi bou Zid and Kasserine Pass, was to start fining GIs caught without their ties or leggings. This caused much grumbling but helped to restore esprit de corps.
But no one suggests the Special Operations forces in Afghanistan were suffering from low morale or indiscipline. They displayed awe-inspiring skills in waging a campaign that blended horses with high tech. In fact -- irony of ironies -- the "no beards" decree came down after Army brass were shocked by news photos showing the scruffy appearance of Special Forces who swung into action to foil an attempted assassination of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. One soldier had his shirt off because he had been wounded saving Karzai's life. The message from the Pentagon seems to be that looking good counts more than doing good.
Another Pentagon initiative may also crimp the Special Operations' effectiveness. Ever since its creation in 1987, the Special Operations Command has enjoyed freedom from the Pentagon acquisitions bureaucracy.
Forces in other "operational" commands, such as Central Command or Pacific Command, have to go through their individual military services in order to buy weapons and equipment. This is a time-consuming, wasteful process that has often been mocked for producing $640 toilet seats and $435 hammers. The four-star general (currently, Air Force Gen. Charles R. Holland) who commands Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, has been given greater leeway.
His budget is tiny by Pentagon standards -- $5 billion a year, or just 1.4 percent of total defense spending -- but he does have freedom to buy the stuff his forces need without going to Washington for permission. During the Afghan war, the command was able to respond when its operators in the field discovered that they needed laser designators and, of all things, saddles and horse feed. The equipment was bought and shipped right away. That might not be possible if the Special Operations Command lost its acquisitions authority.
Yet that is precisely the prospect that Secretary Rumsfeld has raised in a memorandum circulated around the Pentagon. As first reported in the Washington Times, Rumsfeld suggested that Special Operations work under the same budgeting rules that govern the other combat commands.
His initiative is well intentioned -- he wants to relieve the command of overwork -- but, if this comes to pass, Special Operations may lose a key part of what makes it, well, special. With lots more work for the commandos looming in Iraq and beyond, this would seem to be a particularly inopportune time to make such a move.
The writer is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.