Royal Army Major General Richard NuGee briefed about one hundred cadets on the trick to drawing down forces in Afghanistan in a Modern War Institute (MWI) speaker series event on Wednesday. NuGee, the chief of staff of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, also discussed the challenges of fighting a war with such a large and disparate coalition of nations, as well as the difficulty of navigating the delicate domestic politics of ISAF’s host country, Afghanistan.

“The real issue is nobody thought we were going,” he said. He told cadets that despite the challenges of coalitions like ISAF, they are preferable to unilateral interventions because of the international legitimacy they confer but also because they allow each coalition member to carry out tasks as per its comparative advantage.

He addressed recent setbacks in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, in which Taliban forces have retaken a town that was freed in the early days of the war. He noted that a positive sign was that coalition forces still controlled the province’s airfield but also cautioned that such takeovers could occur anywhere in Afghanistan given how thinly spread Afghanistan’s 350,000 forces are.

He said the two factors sustaining the Taliban after nearly 15 years of war are its wealth and its sanctuaries in Pakistan. One of his biggest regrets was not thinking earlier on about logistics in terms of training Afghan forces, especially in how to keep track of bullets, water, and ammunition. A piece of advice he gave cadets was the importance of knowing the local culture. “We should train our troops in Islam and language,” he said. “We need to understand our hosts to understand our enemy.”