What I Learned While Eavesdropping on the Taliban

I spent 600 hours listening in on the people who now run Afghanistan. It wasn’t until the end of my tour that I understood what they were telling me.

Illustration of sound waves and a bullet
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Ian Fritz served in the U.S. Air Force from 2008 to 2013.

When people ask me what I did in Afghanistan, I tell them that I hung out in planes and listened to the Taliban. My job was to provide “threat warning” to allied forces, and so I spent most of my time trying to discern the Taliban’s plans. Before I started, I was cautioned that I would hear terrible things, and I most certainly did. But when you listen to people for hundreds of hours—even people who are trying to kill your friends—you hear ordinary things as well.

On rare occasions, they could even make me laugh. One winter in northern Afghanistan, where the average elevation is somewhere above 7,000 feet and the average temperature is somewhere below freezing, the following discussion took place:

“Go place the IED down there, at the bend; they won’t see it.”

“It can wait ’til morning.”

“No, it can’t. They [the Americans] could come early, and we need it down there to kill as many as we can.”

“I think I’ll wait.”

“No, you won’t! Go place it.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes! Go do it!”

“I don’t want to.”

“Brother, why not? We must jihad!”

“Brother … It’s too cold to jihad.”

Yes, this joke came in the middle of plans to kill the men I was supposed to protect, but it wasn’t any less absurd for it. And he wasn’t wrong. Even in our planes with our fleeces and hand warmers, it really was too damn cold for war.

In 2011, about 20 people in the world were trained to do the job I did. Technically, only two people had the exact training I had. We had been formally trained in Dari and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, and then assigned to receive specialized training to become linguists aboard Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft. AFSOC had about a dozen types of aircraft, but I flew solely on gunships. These aircraft differ in their specifics, but they are all cargo planes that have been outfitted with various levels of weaponry that range in destructive capability. Some could damage a car at most; others could destroy a building. In Afghanistan, we used these weapons against people, and my job was to help decide which people. This is the non-euphemistic definition of providing threat warning.

I flew 99 combat missions for a total of 600 hours. Maybe 20 of those missions and 50 of those hours involved actual firefights. Probably another 100 hours featured bad guys discussing their nefarious plans, or what we called “usable intelligence.” But the rest of the time, they were just talking, and I was just eavesdropping.

Besides making jokes about jihad, they talked about many of the same things you and your neighbors talk about: lunch plans, neighborhood gossip, shitty road conditions, how the weather isn’t conforming to your exact desires. There was infighting, name-calling, generalized whining. They daydreamed about the future, made plans for when the Americans would leave, and reveled in the idea of retaking their country.

But mostly, there was a lot of bullshitting.

Pashto and Dari naturally lend themselves to puns and insults—there is a lot of rhyming inherent to the languages, and many words share double meanings. Part of this bullshitting stemmed from a penchant for repetition. The Afghans I met would repeat a name or statement, or anything really, dozens of times to make a point. But this repetition intensified when talking over radios. A man named Kalima taught me this. None of us know who Kalima was, though it’s generally accepted that he wasn’t anyone important. But someone—we don’t know who—really wanted to talk to him. So he called his name.

“Kalima! Kaliiiiiiima. Kalimaaaaaaa. Kalima Kalima Kalima Kalima Kalima.”

He called his name again and again, at least 50 times, in every possible combination of syllabic emphasis. I listened the whole time, but Kalima never responded. Maybe his radio was off. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk to this guy. Maybe he was dead. It’s possible that I had killed him. I never heard a Kalima answer the radio after that.

All this bullshitting flowed naturally into the Taliban’s other great verbal talent, the pep talk. No sales meeting, movie set, or locker room has ever seen the level of hyper-enthusiastic preparation that the Taliban demonstrated before, during, and after every battle. Maybe it was because they were well practiced, having been at war for the majority of their lives. Maybe it was because they genuinely believed in the sanctity of their mission. But the more I listened to them, the more I understood that this perpetual peacocking was something they had to do in order to keep fighting.

How else would they continue to battle an enemy that doesn’t think twice about using bombs designed for buildings against individual men? This isn’t an exaggeration. Days before my 22nd birthday, I watched fighter jets drop 500-pound bombs into the middle of a battle, turning 20 men into dust. As I took in the new landscape, full of craters instead of people, there was a lull in the noise, and I thought, Surely now we’ve killed enough of them. We hadn’t.

When two more attack helicopters arrived, I heard them yelling, “Keep shooting. They will retreat!”

As we continued our attack, they repeated, “Brothers, we are winning. This is a glorious day.”

And as I watched six Americans die, what felt like 20 Taliban rejoiced in my ears, “Waaaaallahu akbar, they’re dying!”

It didn’t matter that they were unarmored men, with 30-year-old guns, fighting against gunships, fighter jets, helicopters, and a far-better-equipped ground team. It also didn’t matter that 100 of them died that day. Through all that noise, the sounds of bombs and bullets exploding behind them, their fellow fighters being killed, the Taliban kept their spirits high, kept encouraging one another, kept insisting that not only were they winning, but that they’d get us again—even better—next time.

That was my first mission in Afghanistan.

Time went by, and as I learned what different code words meant and how to pick voices out of the sounds of gunfire, I got better at listening. And the Taliban started telling me more. In the spring of 2011, I was on a mission supporting a Special Forces team that had recently been ambushed in a village in northern Afghanistan. We were sent in to do reconnaissance, which sounds impressive, but logistically means flying in a circle for hours on end, watching and listening to locals. We came across some men farming, working a plot of recently tilled land. Or so we thought. The ground team was sure that these were the guys who had attacked them, and that instead of farming, they were in fact hiding weapons in the field.

So we shot them. Of the three men in that field, one had his legs blown off. Another died where he stood. The last was blasted 10 feet away, presumed to be dead from the shock wave obliterating his internal organs. Until he got up and ran away. He and his friends came back, loaded the newly amputated man into a wheelbarrow, and carted him off to a car waiting nearby. It seemed that they were trying to escape, but revenge was just as likely a scenario, and the ground team was worried that they would get more men, or more weapons, and retaliate. But I could hear them, and they didn’t sound interested in retribution.

“Go, drive! We are coming. Abdul was hit. We have him in the car.”

“Keep going! Don’t let them shoot us!”

“Yes, we are coming. We will save him.”

They were trying to get their friend to a doctor, or at least someone who could save his life. And then their car slowed down.

“No, brother. He’s dead.”

The rest of them were no longer a threat, so we let them go.

Throughout my deployment, time and again, our kills outnumbered theirs, they lost ground, and we won. This happened so regularly that I began developing a sense of déjà vu. This feeling isn’t uncommon when you’re deployed; you see the same people, follow the same schedule, and do the same activities day in and day out. But I wasn’t imagining it. We really were flying the same missions, in the same places, re-liberating the same villages we had fought in three years ago. I was listening to the same bullshitting, the same pep talks, and the same planning, often by the same men, that I’d heard before.

On yet another interminable mission, we were supporting a ground team that had gone to a small village to talk with the elder. Together, they were establishing plans to build a well nearby. We circled overhead for a few hours, and nothing interesting happened. No one was doing anything suspicious on the ground; no one was talking about anything remotely militant on the radios. The meeting was successful, so the team headed back to its helicopters. And then the Taliban attacked.

“Move up, they’ve gone to the eastern ditch. They’re running, move up!”

“Bring the big gun; get it ready. They’ll be moving again soon.”

The ground team had to sit and wait for its helicopters to be safe to take off.

“Hey, gunship, where are they, what are they doi—fuck, I’m hit.”

The Taliban knew that they’d hit the team leader. I know because while I listened to his scream, I heard them celebrating.

“Brother, you got one. Keep going; keep shooting. We can get more!”

“Yes, we will, the gun is work—”

They stopped celebrating, because my plane shot them. This was the worst day of my life. It wasn’t the shooting or the screams or the death that made the day so terrible; I’d seen plenty of that by then. But that day, I finally understood what the Taliban had been trying to tell me.

On every mission, they knew I was overhead, monitoring their every word. They knew I could hear them bragging about how many Americans they’d managed to kill, or how many RPGs they’d procured, or when and where they were going to place an IED. But amid all that hearing, I hadn’t been listening. It finally dawned on me that the bullshitting wasn’t just for fun; it was how they distracted themselves from the same boredom I was feeling as they went through another battle, in the same place, against yet another invading force. But unlike me, when they went home, it would be to the next village over, not 6,000 miles away. Those men in the field may have just been farmers, or maybe they really were hiding the evidence of their assault. Either way, our bombs and bullets meant the young boys in their village were now that much more likely to join the Taliban. And those pep talks? They weren’t just empty rhetoric. They were self-fulfilling prophecies.

Because when it was too cold to jihad, that IED still got planted. When they had 30-year-old AK-47s and we had $100 million war planes, they kept fighting. When we left a village, they took it back. No matter what we did, where we went, or how many of them we killed, they came back.

Ten years after my last deployment, and after 20 years of combat with the world’s richest, most advanced military, the Taliban has reclaimed Afghanistan. Whatever delusions existed about whether this would happen or how long it might take have been dispatched as efficiently as the Afghan security forces were by the Taliban over a single week. What little gains have been achieved in women’s rights, education, and poverty will be systematically eradicated. Any semblance of democracy will be lost. And while there might be “peace,” it will come only after any remaining forces of opposition are overwhelmed or dead. The Taliban told us this. Or at least they told me.

They told me about their plans, their hopes and dreams. They told me exactly how they would accomplish these goals, and how nothing could stop them. They told me that even if they died, they were confident that these goals would be achieved by their brothers in arms. And I’m sure they would have kept doing this forever.

They told me how they planned to keep killing Americans. They told me the details of these plans: what weapons they would use, where they would do it, how many they hoped to murder. Often, they told me these things while doing the killing. They told me that, God willing, the world would be made in their image. And they told me what so many others refused to hear, but what I finally understood: Afghanistan is ours.