New Delhi: Distortions in India’s foreign policy on account of the obsession with Pakistan have come to the surface rather conspicuously in relation to Afghanistan. They also highlight the danger of pursuing nation-building programmes in foreign countries where these are not only likely to fail but could misrepresent India’s zeal as a form of politico-cultural invasion. Democracy is excellent, but constructing a parliament building when foreign occupation forces give Afghanistan only a fragile sense of stability is, to this writer’s mind, a waste of resource and a further incitement to rebellion. Indeed, much of India’s non-military assistance to Afghanistan has little to no strategic value, and their life strictly depends on the longevity of the American presence in the country. The story of Chabahar is not much different. Supplying essentials to Afghanistan via Iran makes no long-term sense. Iran will be totally sanctioned by 4 November and there is little hope that Chabahar will survive the catastrophe.

When in doubt, look up the map. India and Afghanistan do not share a border currently. If and when India retrieves Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, it may get a little frontier with Afghanistan almost at the northern tip of the country. However, in the foreseeable future, this event may not come to pass. Non-Taliban and non-Islamic State Afghanistan shares friendly relations with India. In the absence of a shared border, this is not very surprising. Pakistan shares a long border with Afghanistan. Their relations couldn’t be more hostile. Nevertheless, in the circumscribed nature of friendly India-Afghanistan ties, too much is being invested with the likelihood of zero returns.

Perhaps the most extravagant investment for a country of India’s weight and power takes the form of the Chabahar port. Since Pakistan won’t permit overland supplies to Afghanistan from India, India has opted for the circuitous Chabahar route. Iran has often spoken of permitting China and Pakistan to option Chabahar as well. If China is serious, it will block India from Chabahar. Its money power and strategic savvy cannot be matched by India. So why do we continue to pour money into Chabahar and even seek a US sanctions waiver for it? Don’t ask. It makes so little strategic sense. Afghanistan does of course need aid and it welcomes Indian contributions. But Chabahar is a fragile lifeline that solely survives because of the US presence in Afghanistan. It does not alter the strategic-military playbook in Afghanistan in any noteworthy manner. It won’t, brutally put, prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. The Americans look at it as an Indian indulgence of no strategic importance.

So why is India persisting with it?

A good question with no sensible answers.

If you throw in the Pakistan angle, however, the fog clears a bit, but only to reveal the outlying mire. Because Pakistan won’t allow Indian non-military exports to Afghanistan through its territory, an alternative at great cost and of dubious strategic value has been adopted. How can you base strategy on the nominal good intentions of a third party? India and Iran are not allies. Pushed to choose, Iran will back Pakistan. It has sided with Pakistan on Kashmir in the past despite the Shia question. Its offer of Chabahar to Pakistan and China stands good. Should India abandon Iranian oil to escape US sanctions as it must, Iran could exit the Indian partnership for Chabahar citing extreme national interest. And if Chabahar is also sanctioned, India’s plans for an Afghan lifeline go up in smoke. Why persist with something so dodgy and ephemeral?

The question arising from this is this. If not Chabahar, how does India influence events in Afghanistan and keep it friendly? The short answer is India has no direct means to influence events there because it does not share a land border with Afghanistan. If you take away the Pakistan factor, the urgency is lost. There is certainly a Pakistan factor going beyond India’s obsession with Pakistan. Although it has failed before and will not succeed in the future either, Pakistan desires strategic depth in Afghanistan against India. Can India prevent that with the Chabahar operation? No. At the most India can keep the United States alerted about Pakistani machinations as the principal occupying power. But that is possible without Chabahar.

The tragedy is that Indian strategic plans are made without a standard perusal of maps. However far the revolution in military affairs has advanced, it cannot subvert the criticality and importance of land frontiers in an especially backward country like Afghanistan. After seventeen years of expending blood and treasure, the United States is no closer to victory there. Prior to the United States, the Soviet Union was humbled. Does India stand a chance of influencing events in Afghanistan in the circumstances? It came close to being a balancing force when it supported the Northern Alliance against the Pakistan- and Saudi Arabia-backed Taliban. The key backers of the Northern Alliance were Russia and Iran but India played no small part. No such opportunity presents itself today. Realism demands that India supplies Afghanistan through third countries present on the ground. In no case must its investments exceed returns, because imbalance is unsustainable in the long term. India faces the threat of overextension in Afghanistan. Geopolitics is about cutting your coat according to your cloth.