Army linguist Ian Fritz joins us to talk about his experiences providing “threat warning” aboard Air Force Special Operations Command gunships in Afghanistan. His role involved listening to Taliban communications to discern their plans and provide intelligence. Despite the grim nature of his job, eavesdropping on enemy conversations involved both the absurd and the ordinary.
Trained in Dari and Pashto, the main languages in Afghanistan, Ian flew 99 combat missions, totaling 600 hours, with about 20 missions and 50 hours involving actual firefights. The majority of the time was spent listening in on the Taliban’s mundane discussions, revealing their human side. He heard jokes about jihad even as the jihadists were planning attacks against the men he was supposed to protect.
In Pashto and Dari, the Taliban wielded puns, insults, and pep talks before, during, and after battles.
Ian witnessed devastating airstrikes and the Taliban’s resilience despite overwhelming odds. There were mistakes, such as the attack on individuals believed to be hiding weapons. The ground team’s helicopter was ambushed, resulting in the team leader being hit. The Taliban celebrated the successful attack until Ian’s gunship intervened.
Despite the apparent success of their missions, Ian questions the long-term impact and efficacy of allied actions. There was a repetitive and cyclical nature to reclaiming villages.
The Taliban was strategic in their communication with Ian. They shared their plans, aspirations, and a commitment to continuing the fight against Americans.
Ian Fritz’s memoir, What the Taliban Told Me, is a sobering assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has erased gains in women’s rights, education, and democracy.