• “The Great Game” was a term for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia.
  • The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907.
  • The term “The Great Game” is usually attributed to Arthur Conolly (1807–1842), an intelligence officer of the British East India Company.

British-Russian rivalry in Afghanistan

  • From the British perspective, the Russian Empire’s expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, India. The British feared that the Tsar’s troops would subdue the Central Asian khanates (Khiva, Bokhara, Khokand) one after another. Afghanistan might then become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India. (Also called Russofobia)
  • 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 on Afghanistan under Shuja Shah. The regime was short lived and proved unsustainable without British military support. By 1842, mobs were attacking the British on the streets of Kabul and the British garrison was forced to abandon the city due to constant civilian attacks.
  • The retreating British army consisted of approximately 4,500 troops (of which only 690 were European) and 12,000 camp followers. During a series of attacks by Afghan warriors, all Europeans but one, William Brydon, were killed on the march back to India; a few Indian soldiers survived also and crossed into India later. The British curbed their ambitions in Afghanistan following this humiliating retreat from Kabul.
  • After the Indian rebellion of 1857, successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state. The Russians continued to advance steadily southward through Central Asia towards Afghanistan, and by 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed.
  • Samarkand became part of the Russian Empire in 1868, 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.
  • In a letter to Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli proposed “to clear Central Asia of Russian and drive them into the Caspian”. He introduced the Royal Titles Act 1876, which added Empress of India to Victoria’s list of titles, putting her at the same level as the Russian Emperor.
  • After the Great Eastern Crisis (began in Ottoman territories of the Balkans in 1875, with the outbreak of several uprisings and wars that resulted in the meddling of international powers, and was ended with the Treaty of Berlin in July 1878) broke out and the Russians sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878, 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 war’s conclusion left Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne, and he agreed to let the British control Afghanistan’s foreign affairs, while he consolidated his position on the throne. He managed to suppress internal rebellions with ruthless efficiency and brought much of the country under central control.
  • In 1884, Russian expansionism brought about another crisis – the Panjdeh Incident [ a battle that occurred in 1885 when Russian forces seized Afghan territory south of the Oxus River (modern name Amu Darya) at Panjdeh (in modern Turkmenistan)]– when they seized the oasis of Merv. On the brink of war between the two great powers, the British decided to accept the Russian possession of territory north of the Amu Darya as a fait accompli (accomplished fact).
  • Without any Afghan say in the matter, between 1885 and 1888 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.
  • This left the border east of Zorkul lake in the Wakhan. Territory in this area was claimed by Russia, Afghanistan and China. In the 1880s the Afghans advanced north of the lake to the Alichur Pamir. In 1891, Russia sent a military force to the Wakhan and provoked a diplomatic incident by ordering the British Captain to leave. This incident, and the report of an incursion by Russian south of the Hindu Kush, led the British to suspect Russian involvement “with the Rulers of the petty States on the northern boundary of Kashmir and Jammu”. This was the reason for the Hunza-Nagar Campaign in 1891, after which the British established control over Hunza and Nagar in Gilgit region of Kashmir.
  • In 1892 the British sent the Charled Murrey to the Pamirs to investigate. Britain was concerned that Russia would take advantage of Chinese weakness in policing the area to gain territory, and in 1893 reached agreement with Russia to demarcate the rest of the border, a process completed in 1895.

Great Game moves eastward

  • By the 1890s, the Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand had fallen, becoming Russian vassals. With Central Asia in the Tsar’s grip, the Great Game now shifted eastward to China, Mongolia and Tibet.
  • In 1904, the British invaded Lhasa, a pre-emptive strike against Russian intrigues and secret meetings between the 13th Dalai Lama’s envoy and Tsar Nicholas II.
  • The Dalai Lama fled into exile to China and Mongolia. The British were greatly concerned at the prospect of a Russian invasion of the Crown colony of India, though Russia – badly defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese war and weakened by internal rebellion – could not realistically afford a military conflict against Britain.
  • China under the Qing Dynasty, however, was another matter.The Middle Kingdom had badly atrophied under the Manchus, the ruling ethnic caste of the Qing Dynasty. Two-and-a-half centuries of decadent living, internecine feuds and imperviousness to a changing world had weakened the Empire. Natural disasters, famine and internal rebellions had further enfeebled China. In the late 19th century, Japan and the Great Powers easily carved out trade and territorial concessions. These were humiliating submissions for the once all-powerful Manchus. Still, the central lesson of the war with Japan was not lost on the Russian General Staff: an Asian country using Western technology and industrial production methods could defeat a great European power.
  • In 1906, Tsar Nicholas II sent a secret agent to China to collect intelligence on the reform and modernization of the Qing Dynasty. However, meanwhile in 1907, Russia and Britain brokered the Anglo-Russian Agreement, ending the classical period of the Great Game.

Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907

  • In the run-up to World War I, both empires were alarmed by the unified German Empire’s increasing activity in the Middle East, notably the German project of the Baghdad Railway, which would open up Mesopotamia and Persia to German trade and technology.
  • Britain and Russia agreed to resolve their long-standing conflicts in Asia in order to make an effective stand against the German advance into the region. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought a close to the classic period of the Great Game.
  • The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were 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. Persia was divided into three zones: a British zone in the south, a Russian zone in the north, and a narrow neutral zone serving as buffer in between.
  • In regards to Tibet, both powers agreed to maintain territorial integrity of this buffer state and “to deal with Lhasa only through China, the suzerain power”.

A less intensive British-Soviet rivalry

  • 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 the northern frontier of British India. Although little was gained militarily, the stalemate was resolved with the Rawalpindi Agreement of 1919. Afghanistan re-established its 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 Afghans 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 (boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan). In 1923, Amanullah responded by taking the title padshah – “emperor” – 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. The individual who most benefited from the crisis was Mohammed Nadir Shah, who reigned from 1929 to 1933.
  • Both the Soviets and the British played the situation 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 German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 during World War II came the temporary alignment of British and Soviet interests. Both governments pressured Afghanistan for the expulsion of a large German non-diplomatic contingent, which they believed to be engaging in espionage. Afghanistan immediately complied. A period of win-win cooperation continued between the USSR and UK against Nazi Germany until the end of the war in 1945. This less intensive second phase of the Great Game would enter a new era owing to post WW2 geopolitical changes.

During Cold War:

  • After Second World War ,a new era of geopolitical realignment began which left the US and the USSR as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences.
  • During this post-Second World War, post-colonial period the legacy of the Great Game would sow the seeds of a new sustained state of political and military tension.This era, coined the “Cold War”, or “Great Game II” .
  • Decolonisation of the British Empire started, which has been described as one of the focal points of Cold War evolution. Britain’s withdrawal changed the dynamics of inter-Asian geopolitics, especially in Central Asia and the Middle East, leading to several conflicts including the Arab-Israeli conflict, the 1953 Iranian coup d’état and the 1958 Iraqi Revolution.
  • The USSR discovered the same bitter truth within its 1979 misadventure in Afghanistan as the British had found in the 19th Century, and withdrew its last troops from the so-called “graveyard of empires” – Afghanistan in 1988.

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