• Neil Padilla

The Great Game and The Graveyard of Empires

The Great Game was not a game at all. It was a series of bloody engagements between world powers that cost more than financial resources but in human lives. These series of events did not only affect the powers that participated, but it also ended up drawing borders that persist to this day. 

It would be hard, of course, to speak of the Great Game without speaking about its stage: Afghanistan. 

The Graveyard of Empires

During ancient times, Afghanistan used to be an important hub in Central Asia. A large barren country with a rich Islamic history and tradition had long fought and traded with its neighbors. It was first mentioned as part of the conquests of the Median Empire. It too has been part of many Empires in the past of note are the Persian Achaemenid and Sasanid Persian Empires.  It was part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, the Seleucid and Breco-Bactrian Kingdoms. It was incorporated into the Kushan Empire.

The medieval period saw Afghanistan being part of many dynasties of Turkic and Persian origins. The coming of Genghis Khan and his Mongols disrupted their trade but succeeding leaders like Amir Timur who made use of the territory as his staging ground. The last Empire to incorporate Afghanistan was the Afsharid Empire under Nadir Shah. After his demise, Amit Shah Durrani took over with his own empire and is considered as the modern state of Afghanistan.

It has always been an important hub as it bordered the subcontinent of India, China, Iran, and Central Asia. Back then, Afghanistan was not what it is now. It had never encountered a non-Muslim power as different as Britain.

Perhaps the changes brought about by what happened during The Great Game has had a more lasting impact on Afghanistan and its identity than any other event in recent history. 

The phrase "The Great Game" was originally associated with games involving cards and dice long where risk is involved before the 19th century. This was then later used to describe the events that transpired between the Britain Empire and Russia in Central Asia. 

The Great Game

This rivalry between England and Russia started in 1830 and lasted well into the 19th century. The Russian’s continuous advancement caused such concern with the British Empire on where or not the former would eventually reach the then crown in the British Empire’s crown: India. It is because of this that the British used neighboring Afghanistan as a staging ground in defending its interest from invasion.  It is with these encounters that would earn Afghanistan as the Graveyard of Empires.

This concern ultimately began during the Napoleonic War that ran between 1803 and 1815. It was then that Britain found out that Czar Paul I of Russia planned to invade British India while he was still allied with France. But Paul was assassinated before this ever came to fruition. Moving forward, anti-Russian sentiment became prevalent in the Empire.  After the Napoleonic wars, Russia was well underway to take over Central Asia. At the same time, India has spread its control to cover the entire subcontinent of India. There were, of course, plenty of countries and territories in between these two world powers with 4000 miles between them, the concern was there nonetheless.

Russia had, at this point, spread its influence partnering with the declining Ottoman Empire and the Persians. Fearing that Emir Dost of Afghanistan would ally himself with the Russians as he did not get any support from the British in defense to the Sikh Empire and thus opening up her borders for a Russian advance, The British launched an invasion of Afghanistan in what was called the First Anglo-Afghan War (from 1838 to 1842) which ended in disaster with nearly the entire British force being obliterated.

After that, 3 more wars ensued which the British lost. the First Anglo-Sikh War (1843), the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878) resulting in Russia taking control of several Khanates including Bukhara.

In the middle of this all, Russia also had to deal with wars of its own such as their war with the Ottomans, the Japanese, and the Crimean War. The Crimean War was a military conflict fought from October 1853 to February 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance made up of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain, and Sardinia.

Germany had bean to establish itself as a new threat and with a  new enemy to fight, at least at that time,  The Great Game found itself at a lull. Britain made an alliance with France in 1904. A rebellion in Persia finally repaired relations between these two superpowers. Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 divided Persia into three spheres: a Russian-controlled northern zone, an independent central zone, and a British-controlled southern zone.

When World War I came along, there was an unstable peace between the two but by that time they had a bigger enemy than each other - Germany. World War II only help to solidify their alliance as they help fight the Axis powers and their ideals.

From the mid-19th century until almost the end of the 20th century, most of Central Asia was part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union until the fall of the latter at which point Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan eventually earned their independence

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