The Great Game - Russo-British Rivalry
“The Great Game" was the euphemism the British used when referring to their strategic rivalry with the Russian empire. The "Great Game" between Great Britain and Russia played out across the 19th Century, not just in Afghanistan but across the south Eurasian periphery. But it was not a game. It was a dirty, bloody, costly engagement for all sides. The Russians and British used Afghanistan's craggy heights and boulder-strewn valleys to play the "Great Game" of espionage and cold war against each other. The British tried three times without luck to add Afghanistan to their Indian empire.
The United Kingdom regarded Russia as the bughear of the North, the foe to all for which that British stood in history. Hatred of Russia was instinctive with the Englishman, and crippling of the great Northern Power he regarded as essential to English welfare. He cannot forget that India was menaced constantly by Russian proximity, that Russian influence had supplanted that of England in Persia and is paramount there, and that Afghanistan and Belochistan were, after all, buffer States, which, however valuable as such now, would pass under the sway of the Czar if India be conquered.
The most prominent feature in the history of Russia was territorial acquisition. Howsoever the tide of its civilisation ebbed or flowed there was no alternation in the resistless advance of the sea of encroachment. For beginning early in the seventeenth century it continued steadily onward ever since, engulfing, absorbing everything.
The Russian advance began with Ivan IV, "the Terrible," who in Russia's first great military adventure in 1552 conquered a remnant of the vast Mongol Empire, the Khanate of Kazan. It was the conquest of Kazan that began the transformation of Russia from a petty city-state into a multinational empire. Each newly defeated group presented a key to further annexation. In 1721, having made peace with Sweden, Tsar Peter the Great assembled an army and set off, as he said, on "the road to India." He planned to move down the Caspian to Herat on the border with Persia, then turn east to the ancient fortress city of Ghazni, proceed up the Helmand river to Kabul, and then cross the Khyber Pass south to Lahore. He did not make it.
After 1792 the Russians, having overwhelmed the Crimean Tatars, moved steadily, petty Turkish state by state, down the shores of the Black, Caspian, and Aral seas toward Persia and Afghanistan. Their route of march would lead them, the British feared, toward the goal Peter had proclaimed - India. And, obsessed by fears of hordes of Cossacks galloping down from Russia into India, the British believed they would eventually have to defend India from Russia.
Khushhal Khan Khattak, a famous Afghan warrior poet, led a rebellion against the Mughul Dynasty in the 1600s. Mir Wais Khan Hotaki revolted against Safavid rule and took over Kandahar in 1708. By 1736 Afsharid ruler, Nadir Shaw, gained control of the region. In 1747 Nadir was assassinated. Later that year Ahmad Durrani was elected king by a council of tribal leaders. During the 1760s, Ahmad Shah Durrani extended Afghanistan’s borders into part of India. The nation of Afghanistan finally began to take shape under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani after centuries of invasions.
Timur, Ahmad Shah Durrani’s son, succeeded to the throne in 1773. He ruled Afghanistan until his death in 1793, leaving over 20 sons. Timur’s descendants were later engaged in a struggle for power. His son Zaman Shah became king in 1793. Zaman Shah’s brother Mahmud captured the throne in 1800. In 1803, another brother Shah Shuja reigned after replacing Mahmud. Mahmud forced Shuja to flee in 1809 and remained king until he was driven from the throne in 1817. From 1818 until 1826, Afghanistan disintegrated into a group of small units each ruled by a different Durrani leader. During this time the “Great Game" between Great Britain and Russia was beginning to be played out. “The Great Game" involved not only the confrontation of two great empires whose spheres of influence moved steadily closer to one another until they met in Afghanistan, but also the repeated attempts by a foreign power to impose a puppet government in Kabul. The next leader, Dost Muhammad, ascended to the throne in 1826. Concerned about growing Persian and Russian influences, the British, along with former King Shuja, invaded Afghanistan in late 1838 while Dost Muhammad was still in power. Shuja was killed a few years later and the British were defeated. Dost Muhammad returned to the throne in 1843.
As the British thrust across the Indian subcontinent, collecting the petty states into which the Mughal Empire had shattered, they reached what is now Pakistan. To the west was Sind, where a motley collection of local rulers was cowed into a treaty in 1820. The terms of the treaty excluded European traders and American settlers. European traders might have come to the market, and the British, having so recently evicted the French, assumed they would, but American settlers were a figment of their inflamed imagination. With Sind in their hands, the British turned northeast.
The Supreme Government of India having determined on the restoration of His Majesty Shah Soojah-ool-Moolk to the throne of Kahul, orders were given in July 1838 for the concentration of a force on the north-western frontier of India for the purpose of carrying into effect the contemplated object. In September the several corps destined for this service were in motion towards the general rendezvous, Ferozepore, where the "Army of the Indus," (a designation given it by the then Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Fane,) was to be embodied previous to its march for the scene of operations. By 1839 control of the Indus valley brought the British into contact with the Pathan peoples in what was later called the Northwest Frontier and Afghanistan.
Under the system known as the Close Border System British officers were forbidden to go beyond the red line, British troops were forbidden to patrol beyond the mouths of the passes, and even parties in hot pursuit of robbers were cautioned against following them up into the hills. On the other hand, hill men were not prevented crossing the Border into the district, while murders, highway robberies, and thefts, perpetrated by these men, were rampant.Sir Robert Sandeman was, no doubt, the one who gave the death-blow to the Close Border System and initiated the Forward Policy on its true lines when he boldly crossed the Dera Ghazi Khan border in 1866. This system is precisely on the same lines as that so forcibly and accurately described by Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar.
During the years after the First Anglo-Afghan War the Russians, interested in the territories of Central Asia, continued their advance southward. The British, hoping to stop Russian advances, resumed relations with Dost Muhammad in 1854. In 1855 the Treaty of Peshawar proclaimed respect for Afghanistan’s and Britain’s territorial integrity and declared each to be friends of each other’s friends and enemies of each other’s enemies.
The Crimean war resulted in the usual consequences. Russia, finding herself involved in war with Britain, had naturally moved in the direction which was likely to cause the British trouble and annoyance. Her statesmen could hardly mistake their path. The Persians had never forgiven England for abandoning them in 1828, and for thwarting them in ersia' 1838. In ordinary circumstances, indeed, they would have hardly ventured to provoke the opposition of the British nation. But, though they yielded a nominal deference to British counsels, they secretly resented the restraint which the British Embassy at Teheran placed upon them. For Persian policy was radically opposed to British policy. The British had been educated into the belief that Herat was the key of India; they were alarmed at the possibility of Persia becoming at any moment the creature of Russia; and they concluded, therefore, that Herat should never be allowed to pass into Persian hands; and that "the key of India" should be entrusted to other keeping. In 1856 the Anglo-Persian War broke out and the Qajar Dynasty took Herat back into its control.
During the 1860s the Russians intensified their southeastern advances. “The Russian foreign minister claimed the Russian movements in Central Asia were taken simply to unite Russia, not to oppose any other government." In 1872, Russia signed an agreement with Great Britain consenting to respect the northern boundaries of Afghanistan. King Sher Ali permitted an uninvited Russian delegate to enter Kabul in July 1878. Hoping to retain the British influence, British Viceroy Lord Lytton ordered a diplomatic mission to travel to Kabul on August 14th. When no reply was received the British sent a military force to cross the Khyber Pass. Afghan authorities refused the British permission to cross. This incident triggered the Second Anglo-Afghan War. On November 21, 1878 approximately 40,000 British soldiers entered Afghanistan. The British withdrew two years later after facing strong resistance from the Afghan forces.
At the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Treaty of Gandomak was completed between the British government and Amir Yaqub Khan. The treaty was to establish peace and friendship between both countries. It provided amnesty for Afghan collaborators with the British occupational forces and committed the amir to conduct his foreign relations with advice from the British Government. Great Britain, in exchange, promised to support the amir against any foreign aggression.
Abdur Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1880-1901. He modernized the country, formed a strong army, brought in foreign professionals and imported machinery. “Caught between the Russians and the British, Abdur Rahman turned his formidable energies to what turned out to be virtually the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, while the British and the Russians, with the Afghans as bystanders, determined the borders of the Afghan State." Russian forces seized the Merve Oasis inhabited by the Turkoman people in 1884. In 1885 they took possession of the Panjdeh Oasis. Afghan attempts to retake the territory failed. In 1886 the Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed on a border along the Amu Darya River. The Russian-British agreement resulted in a permanent northern frontier, however, much territory was lost in the Panjdeh region.
Seeing that Britain had occupied Egypt partly as the mandatory of Europe, and now refused to evacuate that land, the Russian Government had a good excuse for retaliation. As has happened at every time of tension between the two Empires since 1855, the Czar chose to embarrass the Island Power by pushing on towards India. As a matter of fact, the greater the pressure that Russia brought to bear on the Afghan frontier, the greater became the determination of England not to withdraw from Egypt. Hence, in the years 1882-4, both Powers plunged more deeply into that "vicious circle" in which the policy of the Crimean War had enclosed them, and from which they have never freed themselves.
The fact is deplorable. It has produced endless friction and has strained the resources of two great Empires; but the allegation of Russian perfidy in the Merv affair may be left to those who look at facts solely from the insular standpoint. In the eyes of patriotic Russians England was the offender, first by opposing Muscovite policy tooth and nail in the Balkans, secondly by seizing Egypt, and thirdly by refusing to withdraw from that commanding position. The important fact to notice is that after each of these provocations Russia sought her revenge on that flank of the British Empire to which she was guided by her own sure instincts and by the shrieks of insular Cassandras. By moving a few sotnias of Cossacks towards Herat she compelled her rival to spend a hundredfold as much in military preparations in India.
On November 12, 1893, Abdur Rahman Khan, and the Foreign Secretary of the Colonial Government of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, agreed to mark the boundary between Afghanistan and British India. The Durand Line cut through Pashtun tribal areas and villages. It was a cause of dispute between the governments of Afghanistan and British India and later between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Abdur Rahman’s son, Habibullah, reigned from 1901-1919. In 1904 a boundary commission determined the border between Iran and Afghanistan. The boundary was accepted by both countries. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 divided Afghanistan into areas of Russian and British influence. Habibullah wanted full Afghan independence and Great Britain’s assistance in an attempt to regain lands taken by the Russians. “Britain far more interested in the European power struggle and the defense of India through an Afghan buffer state was uninterested in such a scheme." Habibullah was assassinated in 1919. His son Amanullah succeeded him. During his reign the month long Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 resulted in complete Afghan independence. Amanullah established diplomatic relationships with Russia in 1919, Iran in 1921 and Great Britain in 1922.
Henry Bathurst Hanna had written in 1895 of "... ignorant politicians and ambitious soldiers who are constantly trying to drive them into wild adventures, which will, as they well know, swallow up the proceeds of every fresh tax which they may lay upon an already overburdened people, besides adding enormously to India's indebtedness....
"I believe the Russian Government to be fully aware of the hopelessness of any scheme for invading British India, and to be free from all intention of making the attempt; but so long as it shares our belief that its country and ours are natural enemies, so long will it be its aim and its interest to embarrass and weaken us in Asia. And how can it do this more effectually than by giving us, from time to time, just such sufficient cause for alarm as shall induce us to scatter our troops more and more widely, and to squander more and more of our money on worse than useless enterprises—or rather India's money, a different and far more serious thing, since financial trouble, in the case of a country administered by a foreign power, means political discontent.
"In playing this game, Russia runs no risk. What does it matter to her whether a few thousand British troops are on her side of the Hindu Kush or not? She knows that they can never strike at any vital point of her dominions, and so can afford to look on and laugh in her sleeve whilst our generals add 50,000 or 60,000 square miles to the British Empire, and the Indian Finance Minister racks his brain to discover some new source of revenue from which to pay the price of their militant patriotism."