Rooting round in a second-hand bookshop a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of the 1906 Boosey & Hawkes New National Songbook. Having a soft spot for this sort of thing, I took it down from the shelf and scanned the index eagerly. Amongst the old familiar favourites, such as The Vicar of Bray and Scots, wha hae wi'Wallace bled, my eye was caught by a number I hadn't before seen, Marching to Candahar. It turned out to be by the once famous songwriter A.P. Graves. It had a stirring tune with an attractive Irish lilt, but the lyrics themselves were far more striking. "Marching and marching/ Away for Candahar/ They say she's sore beset/ But thro' the Afghan net/ We boys will break/ and no mistake/ And save the city yet."
The song, which commemorates a famous exploit from the Second Afghan War in 1880, where British troops under General Roberts rushed from Kabul to Kandahar to save the south of the country after a terrible defeat, serves as a sudden and poignant reminder. This is not the first time we have been where we are now in Afghanistan. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, we were drawn to interfere with the country again and again. Many times before have British forces suffered at the hands of snipers, guerrilla fighters and suicide attackers in the wilds of Kandahar and Helmand. Names such as Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah and Waziristan were just as frequent in the Victorian newspapers as they are today. And for 200 years a string of British and foreign governments, making policy in haste without properly considering the history and nature of the place, have found themselves stymied in the mountains of the border and the deserts of the south.
Foreign intervention in Afghanistan is as old as history itself. King Cyrus of Persia in the 6th century BC, Alexander the Great, the early Arab Muslim armies in the 7th century AD all bear testament to this fact. 500 years after the Arabs, Genghis Khan was drawn into the region, and wrought infinitely greater damage on Herat and Bamiyan than ever the Taliban could dare. Most of these invaders were drawn to the region by Afghanistan's crucial position in Asia. There was little in the country itself to attract them, but its central location meant that any empire, whether based in Iran, India or Central Asia, felt drawn to hold pieces of Afghanistan to act as a buffer or marcher territory for protection. The fact that Afghanistan is difficult to hold, and does not offer any ideal geographical lines along which it can be divided was the reason that so many of these outsiders ultimately came to grief. However, such was the perceived strategic imperative of shoring up one's frontiers by controlling part or all of Afghanistan that none of its neighbours have been ever able to leave it alone.