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The Great Game

The Great Game is a term originally coined by Arthur Connolly of the British East India Company used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British Empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. 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.

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 the a force of 40,000 men were 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 who 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 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 Panjdeh Oasis. 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 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 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 1921, the Afghanistan and the Soviet Union 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. The Great Game as a contest between Britain and Russia was over.

See also: European influence in Afghanistan

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