Key Takeaways from Kabul: How Operation Allies Refuge Solidified the Need for a Safety Mindset


It is Aug. 13-18, 2021. The Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan, is chaotic. All established essential airfield operations, including safety procedures and protocols, practically cease to exist. The civilians contracted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to run the essential airfield services have retrograded to a secure compound, leaving operations to in-place and incoming coalition militaries. Thousands of Afghanistan civilians have fled onto the airfield to escape the approaching Taliban forces, and militaries are making security calls that may differ from those of the U.S. Air Force leadership. Every safety threat studied by Airmen seems to arise.

This highly contested environment was the reality Col Gregory K. Cyrus faced as he was deployed to Kabul for Operation Allies Refuge (OAR) as the Joint Air Component Coordination Element to United States Forces Afghanistan-Forward and as Air Forces Central Senior Leader Forward. As senior ranking Air Force officer on the ground at HKIA, Cyrus assisted with securing the airfield and ensuring operations ran smoothly. To do so, the Colonel said he “quickly realized the need to fall back on the basics of safety to ensure the joint and multinational force assembled there would be able to complete what eventually became the largest noncombatant evacuation operation in U.S. history.â€

Thankfully, Cyrus is no stranger to safety measures and contingency response. In fact, both his educational and professional backgrounds are deeply rooted in safety. The colonel excelled in Air Force Safety Center courses and obtained an aviation safety certification from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Additionally, he effectively ran a squadron flight safety program, was deployed as a chief of safety for an air expeditionary group, and commanded both a crossfunctional squadron and a contingency response group. Currently, he provides special assistance to the United States Air Force Expeditionary Center commander.

These are among a few of his many credentials. Despite being invested in educationally by the Air Force and experienced in protecting resources and enabling mission success through sound operational and personal risk management practices, Cyrus found himself encountering challenges during OAR. Therefore, he shared how his experience confirmed the importance of a safety mindset and the need for a fluid process of implementing safety improvements.

When asked about the challenges he faced, the Colonel explained there were a wide array. “Birds, FOD [foreign object debris], CMA [controlled movement area] violations, lasing, small arms, explosives, fatigue, obscuring the airfield environment, lighting, mass ramp personnel movements, you name it, it was an issue we resolved, or more than likely, attempted to mitigate,†he said.

One challenge that proved to be particularly unexpected was the loss of airfield lighting, which was not supplied by an electrical grid as it is at many airfields. Already feeling in the dark about many of the airfield operations, this literal darkness posed a significant risk and hindrance to operations. Thankfully, the Multi-Capable Airmen (MCA) repaired the generator and located a source of diesel fuel that brought the airfield’s generators back on and running.

Because of these issues, Cyrus emphasized the safety mindset, including prioritizing asset protection and ensuring those mission essentials are safely handled. In Kabul, “Two priorities quickly rose to the top: ensure effective air operations through proven safety practices and ensure the safety of every human in the airfield environment,†he said.

This mindset makes room for success in chaotic environments where there may not be time to establish thorough safety procedures—instead, it keeps safety at the forefront of the mind to incorporate into every moment. The Colonel explained that it is essential to recognize the fact that “We may not necessarily have time to establish those essential safety programs that the Air Force has in place when it comes to weapon, ground, or even aviation or aircraft safety.â€

“We must teach them to have a sound safety mindset and to have their head on a swivel—they cannot just focus on the task at hand— there is always a bigger safety implication. Everyone must know the basics of safety.â€


While there were many successes during OAR, there were also instances from which to learn—as the U.S. Air Force aims to elevate higher to ensure excellence in all efforts.

“We observed lesson after lesson about the left and right boundaries of effective safety strategies in the face of an overwhelming task directed from the highest levels of government,†Cyrus stated.

One lesson was the importance of a safety toolkit. Cyrus explained this is already in place, but he witnessed firsthand its importance. This concept not only can be taken in a metaphorical sense but also as a literal safety toolkit, such as a “go bag.†Having useful items, as well as written knowledge (such as tactics, techniques, and guidelines), can be crucial in times of emergency.

Another lesson is that redundancies play a role in a chaotic environment. Cyrus believes the redundancy in training, such as with MCA, is most important. “We must teach them to have a sound safety mindset and to have their head on a swivel—they cannot just focus on the task at hand—there is always a bigger safety implication. Everyone must know the basics of safety.â€

It was also emphasized that unity of effort is important. Many groups supported the mission, as demonstrated by the 82d Airborne out of Fort Bragg, NC, and how they focused on security to allow other Airmen to focus on aircraft operations. Individuals with various skill sets also worked together. “We had a cross-functional team of Airmen, from aerial porters to maintainers to security forces—you name it, we had a capability out there.†Cyrus emphasized that the Airmen on the ground enabled the mission’s success, and without them working together so well, this success could not have been possible.

Lastly, another lesson learned was to have a plan in place for turning facilities over to another host nation, ally, or even a foe—if they are going to continue operating the airfield. In this case, the Taliban was to take over and continue operating the airport to provide evacuative services to the United States and the coalition. Planning for this in advance can help ensure the transition sees optimal success.

Cyrus said he is witnessing these lessons being addressed. He said Air Mobility Command is shifting toward a warrior mindset and reinforcing Air Force readiness. He shared that Air Force leaders quickly came together to assess operations and discuss future implications, which was heartening to see.

One contingency that is now being addressed in planning is providing security in austere environments. Another focus is on mental health. Resiliency does not include ignoring mental health issues; it includes taking care of one’s wellness as well as the wellness of one’s family, Cyrus explained.

One of the biggest takeaways being implemented surrounds the MCA and Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concepts. Although these concepts have been discussed and practiced for a while, this was a prime opportunity to test them.

“For MCA, we could look at OAR as the Air Force’s first real operational employment of the concept,†Cyrus explained. “It checked the boxes; every Airman became a mobility Airman, learning and employing mobility systems in real time, controlling ramp and aircraft loading operations, and by ensuring the safety and security of coalition military forces and evacuees on the airfield.â€

Cyrus emphasized that Airmen demonstrated ACE by being agile and deployed, employed, and redeployed in a short amount of time into a contingency location. “Strategic airlift was the only means of accomplishing the mission, and Airmen supported a proactive and reactive scheme of maneuver inside threat timelines,†he stated.

This environment, paired with the large-scale mission request of supporting the movement of 124,000 people, proved MCA and ACE effective. “Everyone had jobs to do, but in an operationally degraded environment, they worked with joint partners to safely land, download, upload, and launch aircraft on the airfield. These Airmen on the ground set the bar high, showing that MCA and agility are essential to the future fight,†he stated. “Everyone’s focus keyed in on making sure the evacuees, and the crews, and the aircraft would be safe at the end.†The lesson from this is the need to further move these concepts into doctrine and develop them into tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Safety, as an important enabler of OAR, was vital to overall mission success. The nonstop nature of the mission is reflected in the mission itself. The positive changes from it have been nonstop as well.

Editor’s note: Hamid Karzai International Airport airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan, is now known as Kabul International Airport.