The Implementation of P/CVE in Conflicts: Lessons from STRIVE Afghanistan

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This Policy Brief outlines recommendations for the effective implementation of preventing/countering violent extremism programmes in conflict settings that draw on lessons learned from Afghanistan as part of RUSI’s Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism (STRIVE) Afghanistan programme.

Project sponsor

  • Funded by the European Union

    Funded by the European Union

    This Policy Brief was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Royal United Services Institute and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. © 2024 European Commission. All rights reserved


Terrorism continues to take place primarily in contexts of violent conflict. According to the 2023 Global Terrorism Index, in 2022, more than 88% of terrorism-related attacks and 98% of terrorism deaths occurred in countries experiencing conflict. Yet there are pronounced risks associated with implementing sensitive P/CVE (preventing and countering violent extremism) activities in active conflicts. The security of staff on the ground is difficult to guarantee, and programme impact may be minimal given the fast-changing environment. Government engagement also depends on the capacities of the state and its proximity to armed conflict.

With conflict unlikely to decline in the foreseeable future, and an increase in the number of countries cut off from regular international political and development cooperation, what does this mean for P/CVE efforts? Can P/CVE be effective in conflict zones or in contexts where the lines between conflict actors, terrorists and the government itself are blurred?

There are few quality studies of P/CVE in conflict settings. This partly reflects the difficulty of gathering evidence in such settings, and partly reflects donors’ desire for discretion in sensitive contexts. This Policy Brief outlines recommendations for the effective implementation of P/CVE programmes in conflict settings that draw on lessons learned from Afghanistan as part of RUSI’s Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism (STRIVE) Afghanistan programme. 1 STRIVE Afghanistan was an EU-funded programme (2019–24) focused on reducing the vulnerability of at-risk populations in Afghanistan to recruitment into violent extremist (VE) groups.


This brief interrogates STRIVE Afghanistan’s internal and public documentation. This includes programme design documents, formative research, donor progress and narrative reports, risk assessments, intervention area final reports, independent monitoring reports, an internal lesson learned report and an upcoming public independent evaluation. These are supplemented by the author’s own knowledge and expertise as the project lead and a member of the strategic board throughout the programme.

Recommendation 1: Use contextual expertise to formulate a working definition of VE.

The STRIVE Afghanistan programme recognised that definitions of extremism are often highly subjective in conflict contexts, where the line between conflict actors, terrorists and the government may be blurred. The term ‘radicalisation’ is also contentious. Theories of radicalisation tend to take the individual as the primary unit of analysis, while trying at the same time to understand the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ that attract individuals to embrace radical or extremist views. In contexts such as Afghanistan, a more applicable term is perhaps ‘mobilisation’, 2 to reflect that recruitment is often more group based and driven by a mix of ideological and pragmatic objectives.

Radicalisation and prevention models also tend to downplay structural factors that create an environment conducive to VE. At the proposal stage, the STRIVE team already recognised that even if successfully implemented, a programme’s impact could be minimal because of the scale of these structural factors. Formative research identified the following structural factors in Afghanistan – economic problems, opposition to the government, active conflict, marginalisation, discrimination, and human rights violations – supporting the findings of existing research. Many of these lie outside the scope of most P/CVE programmes.

In the absence of a consensus on the definition of VE in Afghanistan, STRIVE mobilised local expertise to come up with a working definition of extremism. Initially, ‘indiscriminate violence’ was used, to enable the definition to be locally translated and to ensure it resonated both with the context and among team members. This definition provided a clear framework in which to categorise VE organisations. As a working definition, it was flexible and allowed the programme to shift its focus once the Taliban had formed the government.

At that stage, the decision was taken to focus on the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) as the primary VE organisation. While the Taliban are still easily described as violent extremists, they were excluded. In part this reflected the context, with UNAMA reporting that between August 2021 and May 2023, IS-K had been the main source of IED attacks, which were the main cause of civilian harm in the period. The rationale was also conceptual, the Taliban had become the de facto government, and P/CVE as an area of intervention is – rightly or wrongly – predominantly focused on non-state actors. Future programmes will require further analytical work to account for situations where governments promote views that align with VE positions. 3

Recommendation 2: Integrate conflict learning into P/CVE but do not relabel activities.

In conflict contexts, programmes should explore the integration of P/CVE efforts with peacebuilding or conflict resolution efforts. STRIVE actively set out to bring together the worlds of P/CVE communications and conflict-sensitive journalism (CSJ). This was based on evidence showing that media coverage that follows the principles of ‘peace journalism’ or CSJ makes people ‘more likely to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict’. 4 In Afghanistan, research found that media coverage during peace talks in September 2020 amounted to ‘war journalism’. Drawing on this, a case was made to support journalists through CSJ training to strengthen the Afghan media’s ability to contribute to tackling communal violence and extremism.

This required careful adaptation of CSJ objectives, particularly after the Taliban assumed power. Project stakeholders needed to balance the requirement to achieve P/CVE-related targets set in the programme’s logframe with the understanding that the training should be adapted to the contextual realities of Afghanistan. Because of the limited public discourse around VE, and the targeting of journalists by both IS-K and the de facto government, there were concerns about overemphasising VE and P/CVE in the training. The programme concluded that conceptually, it is possible to use CSJ to prevent VE without focusing on a particular VE organisation, and that practically this can be done by reframing and desensitising the reporting of topics to prevent retaliation triggers. 5 Evidencing the effectiveness of this approach, the independent evaluation of STRIVE concluded: ‘Future journalism training in this context should be confident in its use of the relationship between P/CVE and conflict-sensitive journalism’. 6

Recommendation 3: Be aware of contextual constraints on achieving gender objectives and prioritise gender despite these challenges.

Research shows that, due to capacity and budgetary constraints, P/CVE interventions often have limited ability to tackle the kinds of deep-seated structural issues that exist in Afghanistan. This limitation undermined the STRIVE programme’s gender objectives.

As the project evaluation observed, the programme was operating in and adjacent to a context in which women were dependent on men for ‘basic aspects of everyday life, such as travel, work and food’. 7 The severity of the current Afghan context meant that many of the tenets of a gender-transformative approach were identified as unfeasible. Meanwhile, the research-led, context-specific approach shown in other intervention areas was perhaps weakest in this area, as a consequence of access and time constraints. 8

As previous RUSI research has shown, gender objectives are often the most difficult to achieve in P/CVE programmes, even in stable contexts. In conflict settings, if programmes are derailed, there can be a tendency to deprioritise gender, even inadvertently, in the interests of time, efficiency or security, as happened in part in STRIVE.

In this scenario, contemporary sociological and anthropological knowledge on gender is crucial to identify novel access points. 9 In STRIVE, the research on gender and VE recruitment could have been better disseminated throughout the programme. The one exception was the programme’s social media intervention, which encompassed a series of interventions on Facebook and YouTube aiming to disrupt IS-K recruitment and increase critical thinking and media literacy among Afghan students. In this activity, the researchers were able to flag and address concerns about gender and conflict sensitivity in the design of social media interventions and to recommend the inclusion of gender sensitive content. As a result, this became one of the most popular and positive areas of engagement, particularly from a gender perspective. 10

Recommendation 4: While security is a major challenge to implementation, risk management should be balanced against risk avoidance.

The political and security environment in Afghanistan was extremely unstable throughout the programme, causing significant delays and one project suspension, when the government collapsed in August 2021. Although the programme’s overall timeline spanned five years, the time available for actual implementation was highly compressed. 11

P/CVE activities inevitably involve risk. This is exacerbated in conflict contexts. Monitoring and managing risk is costly and can contribute to programme delays. Sometimes risk avoidance may be justified, but in most cases, P/CVE programmers should mitigate risks through planned ‘de-risking’ activities. The STRIVE programme team received independent risk and security advice from an external provider, including programme-level risk assessments, context monitoring and specific intervention risk assessments. As a result, the programme team had anticipated and planned for the scenario of government collapse ahead of most international actors.

Once the Taliban were in power, the context and risk profile of the activities changed significantly, forcing a detailed analysis and redesign of risk mitigation and standard operating procedures for the new context. Adaptations continued even as activities were being implemented, responding to changes in security, feedback from participants and evolutions in the feasibility of planned activities. 12 As a result, the programme team was able to de-risk tentative concepts of activities that would not otherwise have been considered. 13 However, the team may at times have been overly risk averse, and relied too much on traditional approaches. This may have limited the types of activities considered for the programme. In conflict contexts, more grounded, innovative approaches should always be explored. 14

Risk management, if designed accordingly, can also produce useful data for analysis and research. In STRIVE, risk management data compelled adaptations to the planned workshops in Doha with stakeholders influential with the de facto government. 15 The insights gained from these workshops were also used to improve STRIVE’s understanding of IS-K, especially with regard to their online operations.

Recommendation 5: Conflict causes significant disruption, so programmes must be able to adapt quickly and innovatively to align with a changing context.

STRIVE anticipated that the conflict could cause considerable disruption. The Taliban takeover meant the programme had to be almost entirely redesigned. Risk and in-country access were top considerations. Previously, the consensus was that on-the-ground and direct, interpersonal interventions were central to most P/CVE activities. However, the security situation was felt to be too severe to support any in-country activity, so online and remote activities were designed instead, including:

  1. Exploring mediated avenues to influence ‘estranged’ authorities and reopen space for dialogue through segments of civil society and political circles.
  2. Testing options for working remotely through social media platforms.
  3. Demonstrating the value of supporting professional solidarity networks outside the country in a way that remains safe and conflict sensitive. 16

These options were not necessarily less impactful. In fact, over time the online space has become a key battleground for radicalisation and recruitment. Moving interventions online was therefore highly contextually relevant and provided actionable intelligence across a range of themes. Such themes included the tactics used to exploit grievances through a mix of economic, social and theological messaging, and the distinctive branding and styles used on social media to recruit young men to IS-K.

Recommendation 6: When designing activities, whether remote or in person, ensure that the programme draws on deep contextual knowledge and an understanding of the context-based sensitivities that may hinder their success.

Where activities are conducted remotely or virtually, all technical staff should have a strong contextual understanding of the country or region. In STRIVE, the deep contextual expertise of the project director, the wider team and implementing partners was a distinct advantage. It enabled the identification of avenues for programming that would otherwise have remained unseen and opened up the possibility of identifying experts with specific profiles, knowledge, skills and networks to facilitate working in the Afghan context. 17

Despite this expertise, the evaluation revealed that some programme participants felt activities were too ‘Western’ and insensitive to the context. At a CSJ training held in Pakistan, some participants raised concerns about trainers’ knowledge about and attitudes towards Afghanistan. The fact that the training was held in Pakistan, which has a history of antagonistic relations with Afghanistan, was perhaps one concern that might have been mitigated by Afghan trainers delivering the training or at least trainers with a more evident understanding of the Afghan context. 18 In particular, project staff who shared a common language with training participants were observed by project evaluators to be critical to the success of the training, particularly in relation to sensitive subject areas such as VE. Given this, the language factor should be strongly considered in any future programming. While the cost may be high, especially if it entails flying native-speaking trainers and participants to a third country, the impact on programme results could be significant. 19

Furthermore, in view of the sensitivity of the subject, certain activities – for example, journalism training – should take place in person. While flying journalists to a third country for a CSJ training was challenging and expensive, participants reported that the chosen location made them feel more comfortable and safer, which had a significant impact on learning outcomes. 20

Recommendation 7: Context-informed and risk-aware iterative adaptations require substantial research.

Although the programme elicited some criticism – including from donors – for being research heavy, ultimately it demonstrated that timely and relevant research is central to programme adaptation in fast-changing circumstances. Concepts of operation were not only decided and rolled out into implementation, but were researched, refined, tested and adapted. 21 This was evaluated to be instrumental to much of the success of the programme for beneficiaries. 22

Recommendation 8: P/CVE programmes should maintain strategic focus.

A key criticism of P/CVE policy and programming in conflict-affected countries is its ‘strategic ambiguity’, which can lead to conflict between actors at different programmatic levels. STRIVE benefited significantly from adopting a clear and strategic approach towards both its target audience and emerging programmatic threats. 23 Although the VE threat was redefined once the Taliban assumed power, the target audience of activities remained unchanged, and project evaluators found that all programme implementers were able to define and identify the VE threat. Clarity in this area appears to have provided operational anchoring and enabled the programme to avoid significant mission creep. 24

Recommendation 9: To achieve greater impact, programmes should be designed to be more flexible. However, monitoring and evaluation frameworks and donor requirements can undermine flexibility and limit a programme’s potential impact.

Although the programme adopted a flexible approach, donor requirements meant that when adapting the programme, activities had to remain as close as possible to the original overall objective. The programme’s Theory of Change and logframe did evolve substantively over the course of implementation, in line with the programme itself. However, in many cases, the logframe was rigid, forcing activities to fit the boundaries of existing indicators. This complicated the development of activities, and in some cases created a disconnect between activities and the original purpose of the indicator. 25

In unstable contexts, it is critical to build in flexibility and agility to the activities planned from the outset – from the logframe and indicators, to the partners and procurement processes. This helps mitigate against programme delays, while additional scope to amend results frameworks or logframes can lead to greater agility and capacity to pursue novel or unexpected developments encountered during the project. 26

Programmes working in environments such as Afghanistan should be supported by funders to build in additional, adaptive staffing capacity to cope with changes during implementation. Unknown factors, such as those that affected STRIVE, will have unpredictable effects on resourcing, leading to staffing allocation models becoming unrealistic and teams working far beyond funded capacity. 27

Recommendation 10: Make case-by-case judgements as to whether a P/CVE programme is worth implementing in ‘unfriendly’ environments and without government support.

A government that obstructs P/CVE activities can undermine a project’s success from the start. STRIVE struggled with government engagement from the outset. Although the Afghan government had started designing its National Preventing Violent Extremism Strategy in 2016, formative research revealed little meaningful capacity for P/CVE. In a situation of escalating conflict, the primary government priority was described as ‘survival’. 28 After regime change, sanctions restricted options for engaging with the Taliban de facto government. This placed the programme in the unusual position of engaging in P/CVE while not engaging with the governing authorities. 29

In practical terms, if government change occurs, the next step should be to assess the ability to work with the new government and/or the viability of implementing the programme independently – which is what STRIVE eventually did. Although the programme team explored the potential for indirect approaches aimed at disseminating P/CVE principles and ideas among influential stakeholders in contact with the de facto government, ultimately this approach was rejected as unlikely to have sufficient impact. 30 If prospects are too poor, resources should not be wasted in trying to push through unwelcome P/CVE packages. However, if the donor is flexible, there may be opportunities for other types of intervention that are sensitive to P/CVE, or that mainstream P/CVE concepts.

Recommendation 11: Implement P/CVE where the space for civil society is restricted and use the opportunity to strengthen civil society.

According to the EU, civil society participation can increase the credibility and legitimacy of P/CVE measures. At the outset, STRIVE anticipated working closely with Afghanistan’s independent media and Afghan civil society organisations (CSOs). The Taliban takeover led to a contraction of the civic space for CSOs and free and independent media and citizen journalism.

The absence or limitation of media freedom does not necessarily mean that media are entirely state controlled. In many conflict and post-conflict environments, local independent media continue to operate, as was the case in Afghanistan in 2021–23. In these contexts, inexperienced journalists may replace many of their more seasoned colleagues, creating a demand for training, which offers opportunities for spreading CSJ concepts. The reduced effectiveness of training as a consequence of limitations on media freedom is, therefore, arguably offset by the greater need and demand for conflict-sensitive journalists in such environments. 31

Social media is a viable alternative. Building up the resilience of social media users against misinformation and disinformation requires innovative approaches and techniques. This is also an intervention that faces relatively low barriers while offering rapidly growing economies of scale. There is potential for expanding the scope of such efforts, in terms of implementation time and ambition.


STRIVE’s independent evaluation recognised that the programme has provided important lessons for the future delivery of P/CVE programmes in Afghanistan 32 and similar contexts. The programme had some clear successes, from innovative work in Afghanistan’s ‘VRE [violent religious extremist] social media ecosystem’ to integrating CSJ into P/CVE activities. The programme, however, was not without its challenges.

The aim of this Policy Brief has been to demonstrate – albeit with strong caveats – that engagement on P/CVE in conflict contexts is viable if programmes are agile and underpinned by strong research and learning activities. As a programme operating in completely unchartered territory after the Taliban came to power, STRIVE was able to be experimental, with perhaps more leeway to demonstrate promising results than sustainable change. It is important not to underestimate the significant human and financial resource costs of designing, adapting and implementing this type of programming. Nor should one ignore the reality that the Afghan context severely limited the programme’s potential for impact. 33 Future P/CVE programmes intervening in conflict environments should, therefore, carefully weigh these factors before launch, particularly in view of the broader situation of limited funding to address an ever-increasing scope of needs. 34

This Policy Brief was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Royal United Services Institute and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

© 2024 European Commission. All rights reserved


Emily Winterbotham

Director of Terrorism and Conflict Studies

Terrorism and Conflict

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For more information on STRIVE Afghanistan, and all programme-related existing and future published outputs, including the independent evaluation, see RUSI, ‘Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism (STRIVE) Afghanistan’,, accessed 13 May 2024.
Sarah Ladbury, in cooperation with CPAU, ‘Testing Hypotheses on Radicalisation in Afghanistan, Why do Men Join the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami? How much do Local Communities Support them?’, Independent Report for the Department of International Development, 14 August 2009.
Matthieu Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’, internal report for RUSI, 2023.
Jake Lynch, A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014).
The Centrum Media (TCM), ‘Afghanistan STRIVE Preventative Media and Communications Component, Conflict Sensitive Journalism Training: Final Report’, 5 September 2023, unpublished.
Emily Paffett, Tom Fisher and Dan Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan: 2022-2023 Final Evaluation Report’, forthcoming.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan: 2022-2023 Final Evaluation Report’, forthcoming.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan: 2022-2023 Final Evaluation Report’, forthcoming.
Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Samuel Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report: STRIVE Afghanistan’, 19 November 2023, unpublished.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.
Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.
Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
TCM, ‘Afghanistan STRIVE Preventative Media and Communications Component, Conflict Sensitive Journalism Training’.
TCM, ‘Afghanistan STRIVE Preventative Media and Communications Component, Conflict Sensitive Journalism Training’.
Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.
Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, ‘National Research’, December 2019, unpublished.
Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Centre for Information Resilience, Disruption, Counter-branding, Redirection and Monitoring Activities, ‘Afghanistan (DCRM-A) Phase 2 Completion Report: Project Minerva’, November 2023, unpublished.
Paffett, Fisher and Range, ‘Evaluation of STRIVE Afghanistan’.
Dillais, ‘STRIVE Afghanistan: A Learning Report’.
Hall, ‘Monitoring Endline Report’.

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