The Great Game

From Academic Kids

Central Asia, circa
Central Asia, circa 1848

The Great Game is a term, usually attributed to Arthur Connolly, used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British Empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The term was later popularized by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his work, Kim. In Russia the same rivalry and strategic conflict was known as the Tournament of Shadows (Турниры теней). The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running from approximately 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 a second less intensive phase followed.



The Great Game in the 19th century

At the start of the 19th century there were some 2000 miles separating British India and the outlying regions of the Tsarist Russia. Much of the land in between was unmapped. The cities of Bukhara, Khiva, Merv and Tashkent were virtually unknown to outsiders. As Imperial Russian expansion threatened to collide with the increasing British dominance of the Indian sub-continent, the two great empires played out a subtle game of exploration, espionage and imperialistic diplomacy throughout Central Asia. The conflict always threatened, but never quite managed to break out into direct warfare between the two sides. The centre of activity was in Afghanistan.

From the British perspective, the Russian expansion threatened to destroy the so-called "jewel in the crown" of India. As the Tsar's troops began to subdue one Khanate after another the British feared that Afghanistan would become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India. It was with these thoughts in mind that in 1838 the British launched the First Anglo-Afghan War and attempted to impose a puppet regime under Shah Shuja. The regime was short lived, and unsustainable without British military support. By 1842 mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison agreed to a retreat from Kabul with guaranteed safe passage. Unfortunately for the British, the guarantee proved to be worthless. The retreating British column consisted of approximately 4,500 military personnel and 12,000 camp followers including many women and children. During a series of ruthless attacks all but a few dozen were killed on the march back to India.

The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following the humiliating retreat from Kabul and after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians however continued to advance steadily southward toward Afghanistan and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed. Samarkand became part of the Russian Empire three years later and the independence of Bukhara was virtually stripped away in a peace treaty the same year. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya river.

It was only after the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878 that tensions were again renewed. Britain demanded that the ruler of Afghanistan (Sher Ali) accept a British diplomatic mission. The mission was turned back and in retaliation a force of 40,000 men was sent across the border, launching the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The second war was almost as disastrous as the first for the British, and by 1881 they again pulled out of Kabul. They left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne; he agreed to let the British maintain Afghanistan's foreign policy whilst he was left to consolidate his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.

Russian expansion brought about another crisis — the Panjdeh Incident — when they seized the oasis of Merv in 1884. The Russians claimed all of the former ruler's territory and fought with Afghan troops over the oasis of Panjdeh. On the brink of war between the two great powers the British decided to accept the Russian possession as a fait accompli. Without any Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance but retain Panjdeh. The agreement delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya with the loss of a large amount of territory, especially around Panjdeh.

In 1907 the Anglo-Russian Convention brought a close to the classic period of the Great Game. The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan was solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory.

The Great Game in the 20th century

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 nullified existing treaties and a second phase of the Great Game began. The Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 was precipitated by the assassination of the then ruler Habibullah Khan. His son and successor Amanullah declared full independence and attacked British India's northern frontier. Although little was gained militarily the stalemate was resolved with the Rawalpindi Agreement of 1919. Afghanistan was granted self-determination in foreign affairs. In May 1921, Afghanistan and the Russian Soviet Republic signed a Treaty of Friendship. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. British influence in Afghanistan waned, but relations between Afghanistan and the Russians remained equivocal, with many Afghanis desiring to regain control of Merv and Panjdeh. The Soviets, for their part, desired to extract more from the friendship treaty than Amanullah was willing to give.

The United Kingdom imposed minor sanctions and diplomatic slights as a response to the treaty fearing that Amanullah was slipping out of their sphere of influence, and realising that the policy of the Afghanistan government was to have control of all of the Pashtun speaking groups on both sides of the Durand Line. In 1923 Amanullah responded by taking the title padshah — "king", and by offering refuge for Muslims who fled the Soviet Union, and Indian nationalists in exile from the Raj.

Amanullah's programme of reform was, however, insufficient to strengthen the army quickly enough — in 1928 he abdicated under pressure, and his brother abdicated three days later. The individual to emerge from the crisis was King Muhammad Nadir, who reigned from 1929 to 1933. Both the Soviets and the British played the circumstances to their advantage: the Soviets getting aid in dealing with Uzbek rebellion in 1930 and 1931, while the British aided Afghanistan in creating a 40,000 man professional army.

With the advent of World War II came the temporary alignment of British and Soviet interests: in 1940 both governments pressured Afghanistan for the removal of a large German non-diplomatic contingent, which was felt by both governments to be engaged in espionage. Initially this was resisted. With this period of cooperation between the USSR and the UK, the Great Game between the two powers came to an end.

The Great Game Renewed

With the end of the Second World War the United States displaced Britain as the global naval power, asserting its influence in the Middle East in pursuit of oil, containment of the Soviet Union, and access to other resources. This period is sometimes referred to as "The New Great Game" by commentators, and there are references in the military, security and diplomatic communities to "The Great Game" as an analogy or framework for events involving India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and now the Central Asia republics from the former Soviet Union. Actually this 'New Great Game' is a part of the Cold War.

See also

See also: European influence in Afghanistan and Geostrategy in Central Asia


  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk (1994) ISBN 1568360223
  • Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia by Karl Meyer, Shareen Brysac, (2001) ISBN 0349113661

History of Afghanistan by Nyrop and Seekins (Голямата игра de:The Great Game


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