"Intimidation is a difficult factor, especially for a population that has experienced what they've experienced for the last 30 years," he said. "But having walked the streets with them, I can tell you they are proud and strong, and courageous people. Intimidation will affect certain things that they do, but they're willing to stand in the face of intimidation if there's a promise of something."
An element of the counterinsurgency strategy is "clear, hold, build and transfer" -- the process of creating a secure society in local hands -- but it's not so easy to assess the broad stage of the war by that measure, either, Paganini said.
"If you look at it from a national perspective, you know: Is the population too afraid to go outside? No. Is the population willing to participate in local governance? In a lot of places you'll see that," he said. "Shuras, open shuras [community-involved decision making forums] are generating a significant amount of participation from the local population. Well, those are conditions for the build.
"Is the host nation security force, the Afghan police, the Afghan border police, the Afghan Army, the ANCOP -- are they taking the lead on operations? Are they capable of independent self-sustaining operations? And in a lot of places they are. Those are conditions that say we're in the build. Is it nationwide? Probably not. But are the indicators pointing in the right direction? Clearly I think so."
He said there was progress in building the Afghan police and army, another part of the counterinsurgency strategy to bolster self-sustaining host-nation government and host-nation security forces.
"They have really taken a larger role in their own information operations, their own influence activities to get the word out to the population that, 'Hey we are the sole protectors of society. We are here to protect you, and when bad things happen we're the ones that are going to come help,'" he said. "So I think you're starting to see a lot more interaction between the population and the host nation security force, and just that mindset of, 'I can trust that guy to do his job.' That overcomes intimidation.
"One thing that always overcomes psychological effects is leadership," he added. "You have a strong Afghan leader at tribe, at village, at district, at provincial, whatever, that people are willing to follow -- that can inspire people's actions. It's going to overcome intimidation," he added.
Paganini acknowledged that Afghan leaders are targets for assassination by the Taliban, but said the conditions are getting "much better" to bring Afghan leaders further into the fold.
"They are passionate about their area, their province, their district, and this sense of nationalism that's growing; there's a lot of them," he said. "The ones that don't step forward, it's not because they're selfish or complacent or don't care. A lot of them really do it [stay on the sidelines] because they believe, 'I don't know that I'm the right person to lead right now.' But there are some absolutely phenomenal individuals. At the village level, there's some great people that step forward and say, 'If nobody else will do this, I will.'"
He also acknowledged there are drawbacks to focusing on Afghan-institution building versus the enemy.