Red Beard

FIRST TIME VISITORS:  If you are here to find out more about the dyed red beards sometimes worn by Afghan men, scroll through the post responses for a discussion of the practice.  Please also take time to explore the rest of the blog by clicking on the blog title in the banner so you can visit the homepage.


This video appeared in several places on the web this week.  It shows 101st Airborne Division soldiers engaged in a battle in Shimbowat wadi, near Camp Clark in Khowst province.  Toward the end, American soldiers are seen speaking with an Afghan elder whose hair and beard are died a hideous shade of red.

I recognized the terrain because I have walked and driven up Shimbowat wadi many times.  I’m about 90% sure I recognize the elder, whom I’ll call “Red Beard.”  I was thinking of writing about him even before I saw the video.

One night we positively identified that a rocket had been launched in our direction from the vicinity of Red Beard’s kalat.  We countered with artillery fire of our own and in the morning we rode out to inspect the damage.

The smell of explosives hung in the air and fresh shrapnel marks splattered the kalat‘s exterior walls.

Red Beard and six other “MAMs” (Military Age Males) stood around a table.  Cleavers in hand, they were butchering a cow that had been killed by the artillery rounds.  The carcass was a bloody mess and the men’s hands and the sleeves and fronts of their shirts were also smeared with blood.  Red Beard greeted us jovially.

“No we haven’t seen any Taliban.”

“They come down from the hills, shoot their rockets and mortars and then leave.”

“All these men are my family and they are here for a wedding.”

“Don’t worry about the cow.  We were going to kill it anyway.”

We learned that one of Red Beard’s sons was currently in detention at Bagram Air Force Base and another had been killed fighting the government.  Still, he professed his desire for peace in Afghanistan and his respect for the military.  We didn’t have any evidence to detain him; in fact, before we left we gave him script he could redeem for the value of the cow.  A few days later, though, we went back and arrested him on the basis of a tip from an Afghan informant.  But after three days we had to let him go, again for lack of evidence.

A report filtered in that our artillery had wounded three children.  Another arrived stating that it had been three insurgents.  We never determined if either was true.

The men with cleavers in hand, all chopping away at the cow carcass, reminded me of Melville’s “Benito Cereno.”  In that story, a naïve American ship captain boards a slave ship on which a mutiny has taken place but which the mutineers attempt to hide from the American.  The captain, Amasa Delano, sees a lot of strange things, including a row of slaves furiously polishing hatchets.  The hatchet-polishers look like a work party, but in actuality stand guard over the white crew members who are now their prisoners.  I’m not saying that Afghanistan is like Melville’s San Dominick, the ship the slaves have taken control of.  But operating there one can feel a lot like Amasa Delano.

We took pictures and retina scans of all the military-age males in the vicinity of Red Beard's kalat.

24 Responses to “Red Beard”

  1. MAJ S. Justin Platt Says:

    Are you really writing from my battle space? I figured asnyone who’s bold enough to reference Melville must be the olny Pete Molin I know. I’m the PAO here at FOB Salerno for P2K.


  2. petermolin Says:

    Hi Justin–I saw your name mentioned in several articles coming from FOB Salerno and meant to write. I was at Camp Clark and then FOB Lightning, so know P2K(+G) and the 203rd Corps leadership very well.

    I hope all is well and that the mighty 101st has brought peace to the region. Let me know if I’ve given away any secrets that might compromise the mission–I should probably have some sort of disclaimer on the blog anyway stating that all opinions are my own.

    And hey, if the Army wants to punish me by bringing me back to Khowst for another year, that wouldn’t be so bad. I enjoyed my year there immensely.

  3. Martin Says:

    Dear Sir
    I came across your piece (which I thought very well written) after I watched the first of the documentary series RESTREPO on the National Geographic channel.
    Whilst watching, I noticed a traditional looking Afghan with a vivid Red beard that was almost certainly dyed. This aroused my curiosity so I did a simple search & came across this page first.
    Strangely enough, there was also an incident concerning the death of a local farmers cow, though it seems the troops got to enjoy the meat in that case (I’m sure it was a welcome change from field rations).
    I am still curious as to why a traditional Afghan man in such a remote area would dye his beared red. The other thing that struck me is something that sadly seems to be the case in similar conflicts through history, which was that the locals were really caught between a rock & a hard place when it came down to which side they supported. I also felt very much more than I thought I would for the men posted over there, as in many ways they are in a similar position.
    How much did you & your brothers in arms come to realise this & did you have a different perception of the people & the War at the end of your tour compared to when you first went out? (I kept asking myself what would I do & what would my choices be if I were in the position that these very traditional people are in)
    Respect to you all & a fervent hope that peace can come to this war ravaged land sooner rather than later.

  4. Peter Molin Says:

    Martin: Thanks for your questions! The “red beard” is easy to explain–elders who have not made the “haj” to Mecca are not entitled to status as “gray” beards, which entails wisdom, seniority, and respect. Since not many elders from Khowst had the fortune or money to make the haj, we saw many hideous dye jobs–sometimes red, sometimes black. The second question is tougher. It was a rare day when you could catch an insurgent with a weapon in hand or emplacing an IED (see my post “The Death of Hekmatullah”). All other times, you had no way of knowing any Pashtun’s true allegience. We knew that, and knew that nothing good would come of shooting, capturing, or treating poorly anyone who was unarmed and not an immediate threat. I’m quite sure I’ve drank tea and had quite pleasant conversations with Afghans who had, if not first-hand, then surely second-hand information about efforts to kill Americans. It was weird, but what could you do. In Afghanistan, the tea drinking time is one thing, the fighting time is another. -Pete

    • isabel Says:

      this is really interesting, pete. thanks for explaining the “red beards”… you’re just about the only source i was able to find.

  5. Martin Says:

    Dear Pete
    I did start to write a much longer response to your reply. However typically for myself it has turned into a major analysis of Afghanistan from a Historical perspective. It is still in my Draft box, waiting to be edited
    Yes those Red beards really made me quite puzzled, I was half expecting to see some green Mohawk’s, Your reply put all into place &explained perfectly.
    It is good to know that as long as we are in Afghanistan we have intelligent men like yourself who have the ability to see the whole thing from a wider perspective. & to understand & respect the complex Afghan Tribal culture , whilst still keeping your eye on the ball when it comes to the unfortunate business of combat.
    My respect & best wishes to you & yours

  6. James Brizzle Says:

    I too found this website off google, searching for a description/elaboration on the red-beards after I watched Restrepo. Thank you very very much for filling us in!.

    I honestly can’t imagine how I’d feel being there. It seems to be the ‘typical’ situation of ‘racism’. Much as certain minorities here are profiled for certain things that they themselves may not do, but the larger majority of their ‘group’ are associated to be doing. It seems that these people are profiled on the same basis. Though I understand and respect their feelings, I do believe, as with any group of people. You have to understand, and accept that your people take actions that will have a greater, larger scale effect on your people as a whole.

    With that being said, I don’t think I’d survive out there, and I’m not sure I’d have the patience it appears to require. Complete respect!. Your article was well written and it seems this will be a bookmark-able site!

  7. petermolin Says:

    James–thanks again for another compliment! This post seems to be the most popular in the blog. It was indeed a confusing situation to live through and I tried to capture that sense of uncertainty in the entry. Talk about the fog of war! -Pete

  8. Bill Says:

    I, too, saw RESTREPO (last night, as a matter of fact). I was haunted by it. The precariousness of that position, the close proximity to the enemy, and the emotions of the soldiers, especially when their BIA were killed, was powerful. My respect and utter awe of what those kids are doing over there is magnified 1000%.

    And, of course, I was curious about the red beard business. Thanks for clearing that up. I was also amazed at their eyes – they looked like they were sporting eyeliner!

    But, I have another question. In the Doc, they show a couple of small children whose hair is also dyed that same unnatural red as well. Very strange. Left overs from granddad’s dye job? Weird.

    Anyway, hats off to all those severing in the armed forces, but particularly to those in Afghanistan.

    • petermolin Says:

      Bill: Thanks for the comments. Yes the beard and eyeliner business could be quite creepy, and I don’t know all there is to know about it. Not sure how to account for the children’s hair either. I saw a lot of children with henna-colored hair, but nothing much brighter. If I find anything out I’ll be sure to post it. -Pete

  9. Shan Says:

    I saw Restrepo just last night. I was greatly impressed by this documentary. I was even more impressed by the Soldiers. Thanks for the info on the red beards. I too, was wondering about that. I am currently a DoA civilian who works on the Army Staff and have always felt proud to work for the Army. After watching Restrepo last night, I couldn’t be prouder!

  10. Sean Says:


    After watching Restrepo last night (Jan. 24, 2011), I hunted online for some cultural insight into the “red beards.” Many thanks for the info.

    I also wanted to say that I came away from the documentary impressed, amazed, and humbled. I was impressed of course by the soldiers and their lives while posted to such a harsh environment for 15 months; I was equally impressed by Sebastian Junger’s embedded reporting, allowing the soldiers to speak for themselves. It takes guts to report on a very dangerous situation at such close range, and even more guts to remain there when the reporter isn’t required to do so. My best to the soldiers, and to the reporters who give us non-military folks at least an inkling of what life “over there” is like.

    Also: Thanks for the Benito Cereno reference. I especially enjoy when a person gives greater insight into an incident by referring to one of the classics, even if Melville’s story is one I haven’t read since college. If being in Afghanistan feels like being in Amasa Delano’s position, then operating there must be nothing less than precarious.

    • petermolin Says:

      Thanks, Sean–especially glad to know someone appreciates the Melville reference. I’d like to say we operated more cheerfully and boldly than Amasa Delano, but he was pretty jaunty himself much of the time (stupidly so). The big thing to do was to be able to live through the moment knowing that at the end of it you were going to know things you didn’t know before, and probably realize that you made a mistake or two along the way. Nothing was ever going to work out according to plan, but not doing anything was never an option.

  11. Rachel Says:

    my husband is currently in Afghanistan and has told me stories of men and young boys with eyeliner, red hair/beards and nail polish. I understand the meaning behind the hair and beards, but have been unable to find any reliable information on eyeliner and nail polish. since he has been deployed i have become quite interested in learning about their culture. any additional information you may have would be wonderful!

    • petermolin Says:

      Hi Rachel. I definitely saw plenty of eyeliner, nail polish, and dyed hair on yong men, but am still not sure what is all about. Maybe another reader can help us. As for Afghan culture, check out Emilie Jelenik’s blog Captain Cat’s Diaries at Very smart and very entertaining on tribal rivalries, women’s affairs, politics, and culture.

  12. h Says:

    hello to every one. eyeliner nail means nothing in afghanistan but for somepeople that they are working hard in the forms and wood cuting they feels pian and as there fothers told them ‘hena’ is good for pian they do it so, also there well question why children do this, for them it is styel. My self i do remember that my grant ma was telling me the nights of eid that i should put hena on my palm and my smal fenger. But all afghans puting hena night before wedding. And about older my best friend peter is right but just half pashtun tribe are doing this in certen parts of afghanistan.

  13. h Says:

    sorry that i did not said about eyeliner. The things that afghans are using on there eyes we call it ‘surma’ most afghans are use this for there chiled under age of 3 because they thing it’s curable and makes good lookin eyes for children, and some of them continue this until age of 10 or 12 ofter these age this is style for them and for some of them it’s cultuer also most of the taliban are use this iam not sure because of the cultuer, fear or religes or something that themselfs know. Older people do this just like children but not for good looking it’s cureable.

  14. petermolin Says:

    Hedayet: Thanks for telling us so much about henna and “surma.” It is a very interesting subject for us Americans who saw Afghans die their hair, use eyeliner, and paint their fingernails but didn’t understand why. I have one question: What do you mean by “curable”? Does that mean that the dye is not permanent? Or does it mean that the dye acts like medicine?

  15. h Says:

    yes sir it acts like medicine in there idea. And about nail, when they use henna in the skin it stay for 1 or 2 months but on the nail it stay for 3 or 4 months that is why you can not see colore in there skin but you can see it on there nails. And people thing they color just there nail.

  16. h Says:

    also eyeliner is sunat(suna)

  17. Angus Says:

    Hi Peter, I just watched “Restrepo” last night and wondered about the dyed-beard business, so thanks for an informative post! I didn’t notice any nail polish in the film, but it occurred to me that the eyeliner might have once had a practical application: to reduce sun glare in the eyes, much like how some athletes smear greasepaint under their eyes. (There’s a theory that the ancient Egyptians wore eyeliner for the same reason).

    The Melville reference is a neat metaphor for the situation, and seemed even more appropriate after reading your above response to Martin’s second question–especially the part about drinking tea with people who likely have (at least) second-hand knowledge of attacks on Americans. I think the whole segment beginning with “It was a rare day when we could catch an insurgent with weapon in hand…” dovetails nicely with the end of the original post; to me it almost reads like a continuation of the ‘Benito Cereno’ metaphor.

    Best regards,


    • petermolin Says:

      Thanks Angus–don’t know about the use of eyeliner as a glare reducer, but maybe my interpreter Hedeyat can tell us. To live in that stark and shadeless landscape without sunglasses would be brutal.

      “Red Beard” post continues to attract more readers and comments than the rest of my blog combined! Thanks to Restrepo, I suppose. But do poke around a little and let me know if anything else interests you.


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