Lights of Liberty

Lights of Liberty

In the darkest hour, when despair was evident and hope was just a word, what endured was the beacon of light emanating from the torch of Lady Liberty. The 14 years that have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, have not diminished the memory of our loved ones killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the field near Shanksville, Pa.

The global war on terrorism is recognized as beginning on Oct. 7, 2001. Its approaching anniversary has not reduced the brilliance of our servicemembers killed in action, others maimed, and those suffering from traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder. Each is a light of liberty.

The collective efforts of the U.S. military and civilian forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – people with whom I have had the honor to serve – have been dedicated to all the lights of liberty who lost their lives on 9/11, and to all who stepped forward on their behalf.


We read the news, watch television reports and listen to radio broadcasts about the progress of the global war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. But is winning the same as securing the peace?  

Most Americans are aware of the shooting part of the war – or in current military jargon, the “kinetic” aspect. The “non-kinetic” part employs other military assets – including, but not limited to, civil affairs, combat engineers, uniformed medical personnel, and agriculture development and human terrain teams to engage the local populace as well as restore civil institutions and build or rebuild infrastructure in their societies. Kinetic measures are usually necessary only so that personnel employing non-kinetic efforts may safely travel throughout the battle space. 

Non-kinetic warfare The U.S. military is engaged in many non-kinetic efforts. Iraq and Afghanistan are proud agrarian societies, but the continuous conflicts of recent decades have destroyed untold acres of farmland there. Moreover, generations of acquired agricultural knowledge have been lost.

Military assets working with the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture and USAID through the nations’ ministries of agriculture have made progress in restoring Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s agrarian legacies. This progress is difficult to quantify and can therefore be seen as less tangible than kinetic action, but that does not diminish the significant long-term effect in securing the peace.  

Civil Affairs (CA) is a major contributor to non-kinetic efforts. These personnel assist military commanders and government officials by coordinating efforts with civil authorities and the populace to reduce the impact of military operations during times of conflict and natural disasters. CA assists in programs and projects related to economic development, education, governance, infrastructure, public health, rule of law and security through coordination with the host country and U.S. government agencies. In addition, CA may partner with international intergovernmental (the United Nations) or nongovernmental organizations (Red Cross/Red Crescent, Mercy Corps or International Medical Corps).

Examples of two CA non-kinetic efforts to secure the peace include:   

  • Iraqi provincial elections, 2009 The Iraqi provincial election joint planning team included Iraqi nationals, civilians from nongovernmental organizations and coalition forces. The team was part of a larger coordination effort with Iraq’s Independent Higher Electoral Commission, international (intergovernmental) organizations and the State Department to ensure that Iraqi voters were offered fair and credible provincial elections across the country. The disenfranchised Sunni minority was encouraged to participate, resulting in a higher voter turnout than previous elections. This was a good sign that the Sunnis believed the political process was a peaceful avenue to share power and govern Iraq. Provincial elections were conducted Jan. 31, 2009, with a high turnout and results recognized by the Iraqi people.  
  • Iraqi National Literacy Campaign The Iraqi National Literacy Campaign Committee included Iraqi nationals, civilians from nongovernmental organizations and coalition forces. This joint planning effort has offered the Iraqis a path to  literacy proficiency, which has been a gateway for military-age males to serve in the Iraqi army or police. The campaign has also assisted others in gaining eligibility to enroll for vocational training that leads to better employment opportunities. Moreover, a literate populace may be better able to resist insurgent propaganda. Ultimately, the campaign will increase the literacy rate of the Iraqis, which will appeal to foreign investors. Increased economic opportunities for Iraqis can also dissuade military-age males from accepting the financial incentives offered by the insurgency.

Another contributor to non-kinetic efforts is the Human Terrain Team (HTT), which directly engages local communities through face-to-face interviews. The team learns perceptions, motivations, interests and grievances for or against their government, as well as public opinion about the coalition forces and the insurgents (i.e., the Taliban). HTT uses information from these interviews to provide operationally relevant, actionable information for military commanders and their staffs to better guide their decision-making.

Here are some examples of non-kinetic efforts to secure the peace in Afghanistan, using HTTs:    

  • Agro-economic mindset of agriculturalists. This involves understanding farmers' economic mindset, particularly about specific crops they choose to plant and how this information can be used to better allocate resources from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), USAID, USDA, nongovernmental organizations and the Department for International Development (DFID), the British equivalent of USAID. 

    The information can assist in blunting the poppy harvest on which the Taliban relies to fund its operations. Ultimately, the agricultural information fosters an environment conducive for farmers to sell fruits and vegetables to consumers in domestic and international markets, driving toward a sustainable economic environment.
  • Interim Security Critical Infrastructure (ISCI)/Afghanistan Local Police (ALP). ISCI and ALP are local nationals who conduct security patrols in the rural districts where they reside. Recruitment and retention are critical factors in both. These security forces are put to great use where Afghan security might be lacking. Intimate knowledge of ISCI/ALP members in their own communities usually leads to better police intelligence to disrupt Taliban or insurgent activities locally. In addition, this offers an available candidate pool for increasing the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces, including army and police, to provide security.       
  • Religious Engagement Program. This program operates in coordination with Navy chaplains to help Afghan National Army Religious Cultural Adviser Officers (RCAOs) engage local religious leaders to build positive relationships with their communities as well as to counteract Taliban and insurgents’ anti-GIRoA and anti-coalition messages. Moreover, RCAOs’ efforts may reduce Taliban/insurgent attacks against GIRoA and coalition forces, and increase cooperation between GIRoA/coalition forces and local communities. The goal is to sustain a positive and responsive relationship between GIRoA and the people.
  • Street-Level Vision 2014. This approach involves understanding local perceptions of the eventual withdrawal of coalition forces and its potential impact for Afghanistan. Such information can be used to determine the right kind of data necessary to measure success prior to coalition forces’ withdrawal in a given area.    

Life after bin Laden  The relationship between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden is well known. President Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s killing on May 1, 2011, was celebrated throughout the United States – particularly in New York City.

I was deeply moved, as a soldier and New York City Police Department officer, to be serving with the Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand province at the time of bin Laden’s death. I felt a sense of closure for the NYPD (23 fallen), the New York City Fire Department (343 fallen), the Port Authority Police Department (37 fallen), the city itself and the nation. As the war on terrorism continues, we have taken out additional al-Qaida leaders, such as Anwar al-Awlaki.

The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan closed a chapter but opened new ones, of self-determination for the people of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan. As we enter the 14th year of the war, it may be difficult to visualize its conclusion.

Central to that conclusion is our ability to secure the peace. We are winning this long war with kinetic targeting, but we will not secure a lasting peace without non-kinetic efforts through better governance and sustainable development. The lack of such may be factors in the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its control of territory in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although it may get more difficult before it gets better in that region of the world, our fallen and their families are not forgotten.

Inspired by the words of President Kennedy, I believe that the price being paid, the burden being borne, the hardships being met through the service of U.S. military personnel around the world, and the vigilance of our nation's law enforcement officers remind us that the lights of liberty are eternal, just like the flame that marks JFK’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Wilem S. Wong has served more than 27 years in the Army Reserve. He is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, now in the Selective Service System in New York. In the civilian world, he is an NYPD sergeant. He is a member of American Legion Post 1291 in New York City, which provided relief and support for first responders in the aftermath of 9/11.