Learning drives behavioral adaptations necessary for survival. While plasticity of excitatory projection neurons during associative learning has been extensively studied, little is known about the contributions of local interneurons. Using fear conditioning as a model for associative learning, we found that behaviorally relevant, salient stimuli cause learning by tapping into a local microcircuit consisting of precisely connected subtypes of inhibitory interneurons. By employing deep-brain calcium imaging and optogenetics, we demonstrate that vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP)-expressing interneurons in the basolateral amygdala are activated by aversive events and provide a mandatory disinhibitory signal for associative learning. Notably, VIP interneuron responses during learning are strongly modulated by expectations. Our findings indicate that VIP interneurons are a central component of a dynamic circuit motif that mediates adaptive disinhibitory gating to specifically learn about unexpected, salient events, thereby ensuring appropriate behavioral adaptations.