NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, on Nov. 6, 2018. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban canceled its scheduled peace talks with U.S. officials this week in Qatar, following an encouraging meeting between senior U.S. and Taliban representatives in the UAE several weeks ago. The Taliban objected to Washington’s desire to include Afghan officials in this round, who were not present at the last meeting.

The big picture: The cancellation underscores the daunting challenge of launching peace talks in Afghanistan. The Taliban refuses to talk to Kabul until Washington reaches a deal with the insurgents on the departure of U.S. forces. Washington has expressed a willingness to discuss the troop issue with the Taliban, but it also wants Kabul to talk to the Taliban as soon as possible to ensure that the Afghan government isn’t written out of the script of its own reconciliation process.

Independently of the peace process, President Trump intends to remove several thousand soldiers from Afghanistan, which risks depriving Washington of leverage in the talks and giving the Taliban flexibility — including the freedom to back out of meetings that don’t serve its interests. In fact, impending U.S. troop withdrawals leave the Taliban little incentive to engage with the U.S., as it could soon get the troop departures it wants without having to enter talks at all.

Washington’s struggles to cooperate with Pakistan and Afghanistan are well known, but Iran is another challenging regional actor. The Taliban’s cancellation of the talks came soon after a Taliban delegation visited Tehran, suggesting that Iran may have encouraged the insurgents to back out to spite its U.S. rival.

The bottom line: U.S. officials won’t want the Taliban snub to deter their reconciliation efforts, but it’s a reality check that can’t be ignored.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director for the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.

Go deeper

Trump says he intends to give RNC speech on White House lawn

President Trump speaking to reporters on South Lawn in July. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump told the New York Post on Thursday that he plans to deliver his Republican National Convention speech from the White House lawn, despite bipartisan criticism of the optics and legality of the location.

Why it matters: Previous presidents avoided blurring staged campaign-style events — like party conventions — with official business of governing on the White House premises, per Politico.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 20,739,537 — Total deaths: 751,910— Total recoveries: 12,895,242Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 5,242,184 — Total deaths: 166,971 — Total recoveries: 1,755,225 — Total tests: 64,612,034Map.
  3. Politics: House Democrats to investigate scientist leading "Operation Warp Speed" vaccine projectMcConnell announces Senate will not hold votes until Sept. 8 unless stimulus deal is reached.
  4. 2020: Biden calls for 3-month national mask mandateBiden and Harris to receive coronavirus briefings 4 times a week.
  5. States: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to drop lawsuit over Atlanta's mask mandate.
  6. Business: Why the CARES Act makes 2020 the best year for companies to lose money.
  7. Public health: Fauci's guidance on pre-vaccine coronavirus treatments Cases are falling, but don't get too comfortable.

Fauci's guidance on pre-vaccine coronavirus treatments

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Antibody drugs and various medicine cocktails against the coronavirus are progressing and may provide some relief before vaccines.

The big picture: Everyone wants to know how and when they can return to "normal" life, as vaccines are not expected to be ready for most Americans for at least a year. Two therapies are known to be helpful, and more could be announced by late September, NIAID Director Anthony Fauci tells Axios.