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WASHINGTON — For an idled worker at a Kabul-based aid group, Abaad, that helps abused Afghan women, frightened and often tearful calls are coming in, not only from her clients but also from her female colleagues.
A Dec. 24 order from the Taliban barring aid groups from employing women is paralyzing deliveries that help keep millions of Afghans alive and threatening humanitarian services countrywide. As another result of the ban, thousands of women who work for such organizations across the war-battered country are facing the loss of income they desperately need to feed their own families.
The prohibition is posing one of the biggest policy challenges over Afghanistan for the United States and other countries since the U.S. military withdrawal in August 2021 opened the door for the Taliban takeover. Those nations face the difficult task of crafting an international response that neither further worsens the plight of millions of aid-dependent Afghans nor caves into the Taliban's crackdown on women.
The United Nations estimates that 85% of nongovernmental aid organizations in Afghanistan have partially or fully shut down operations because of the ban, which is the Taliban's latest step to drive women from public life.
Abaad was among those suspending its work. Its female employees provided support and counseling to women who endured rape, beatings, forced marriages or other domestic abuse.
Female clients told the Abaad worker that without the group's help, they fear they will wind up on Kabul's streets. For the worker herself and for thousands like her across Afghanistan, they depend on their paychecks to survive in a broken economy where aid officials say 97% of the population is now in poverty or at risk of it.
One colleague told her she was contemplating suicide.
The aid worker and others interviewed expressed hope that the United States, the United Nations and others will stand by them and persuade the Taliban to relent on the ban.
"That's all we ask. They should find a solution, find a way to support people here in Afghanistan," she said. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of her safety.
Several leading global aid organizations that have suspended operations are urging U.N. aid agencies to do the same. They are asking the Biden administration to use its influence to ensure the international community stands firm.
The U.S. is the largest single humanitarian donor to Afghanistan. It also has an abiding interest in quelling security threats from extremist groups in Afghanistan, one of the tasks for which it hopes to maintain some limited relationship with the Taliban.
A U.S. official involved in the discussions predicted a final international response that falls somewhere between suspending all aid operations, which the official said would be inhumane and ineffective and the other extreme of fully acquiescing to the Taliban ban.
One proposal being looked at in the administration is stopping all but lifesaving aid to Afghans, according to another U.S. official and nongovernmental officials familiar with the discussion.
The officials were not authorized to publicly discuss ongoing deliberations and they all spoke on condition of anonymity.
Aid group officials and analysts point to the difficulty of narrowing down what is lifesaving assistance, however. Food aid, certainly. But what about other forms of support such as maternal care, which has helped more than half of Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate since the 1990s?
Major nongovernmental aid organizations say that without female workers, it's impossible for them to effectively reach the women and children who make up 75% of those in need. That's because of Afghanistan's conservative customs and the Taliban's rules prohibiting contact between unrelated men and women.
"Our suspensions are operational necessities," said Anastasia Moran, senior officer for humanitarian policy at the International Rescue Committee. "It's not being punitive. It's not trying to withdraw services. It's not a negotiating tactic."
The Taliban crackdown is re-creating conditions from their first time in power in the mid-1990s when successive edicts drove women out of schools, jobs, aid work and increasingly into their homes. Taliban leaders then ultimately ordered households to paint their windows black, so that no passersby could see the women inside. It left women and children in female-headed households with little means to access money or help to stay alive.
The U.S. invasion that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ended that first era of Taliban rule. The Biden administration and aid groups all cite a determination to avoid a repeat of the fractured, rivalry-driven and often ad hoc international response to the Taliban abuses in the 1990s, including the crackdown then on women.
U.N. Security Council members met Friday behind closed doors to consider the international response, after 11 of the 15 member nations reiterated the council's demand for "unhindered access for humanitarian actors regardless of gender."
The humanitarian crisis brought on by the Taliban's ban comes at a politically sensitive moment for Biden, with Republicans now leading the House and pledging to investigate the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a foreign-policy veteran newly in charge of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the crackdown on women part of the "disastrous" consequences of the U.S. withdrawal. McCaul. R-Texas said his committee will push for answers from administration officials on their handling of Afghanistan policy.
"This administration promised consequences if the Taliban revoked its promise to uphold the human rights of Afghan women and girls," McCaul said in a statement to the Associated Press. "Unfortunately, it is no surprise to see the Taliban violate this commitment, and now consequences must be swiftly delivered."
Almost all involved expressed hope that quiet diplomacy led by U.N. officials over the next few weeks could lead the Taliban to soften their stance, allowing female aid workers and aid organizations overall to resume their duties.
U.N. and other officials are meeting daily on the matter with the Taliban's most senior leaders in Kabul, who have access to the Taliban's supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, and his associates in the southern city of Kandahar, a U.S. official said.
Some caution the international community may face years of little influence over Afghanistan's rulers.
In the meantime, the mission for those assisting isolated abused women was clear. said Masuda Sultan, an Afghan woman also working with the Abaad aid group.
"Our goal is to help these women," Sultan said, speaking from Dubai. "If they don't get help, they will die."