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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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The Great Game: Who's Playing Whom?

CIRCA 1838 CE
THEMES:

Geography & Destiny

Identity & Perception

Reveal Source

Anonymous. "Russian Cavalry." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 29, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_Cavalry_in_1827.png.

Atkinson, James. Arghandi (Afghanistan). Guns Surrendered by Dost Muhammad Khan in Centre Secured by Major Cureton and His Lancers. 1839. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Burke, John. Group. The Amir Yakub Khan, General Daod Shah, Habeebula Moustafi, with Major Cavagnari C.S.I. & Mr Jenkyns [Gandamak]. 1879. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Burke, John. "The 44th Hill Looking towards Jugdalluck, 1848." Digital image. The British Library. Accessed October 20, 2010.http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/photocoll/t/019pho000000487u00091000.html.
 
Chand, Dip. Portrait of East India Company Official. 1760-63. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
 
Eden, Emily. Dost Mahomed Khan and Part of His Family: Mahomed Akram Khan, Hyder Khan, Abdool Ghunee Khan. 1844. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
KES-1610-A-979. Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Myprivatecollection7. "1879 Afghan War Football Match Soldiers Khelat-I-Gilzai." Digital image. Myprivatecollection7's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 29, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/45866053@N02/4291175069/.
 
Painting (the Signing of the Treaty of Bhairowal on 26 December 1846). 1846-47. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.
 
Rattray, Lieutenant James. Dost Mahommed, King of Caubul, and His Youngest Son. 1848. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Rattray, Lieutenant James. Encampment of the Kandahar Army, under General Nott. 1848. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Rattray, Lieutenant James. Fortress of Alimusjid, and the Khybur Pass. 1848. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Rattray, Lieutenant James. Jaunbauz, or Afghan Cavalry, with Horse, Bearing Implements for Smoking. 1848. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Rattray, Lieutenant James. Temple of 'Ahmed Shauh', King of Afghanistan. 1848. Courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
 
Unknown. Painting (Sir John Dalling in Tanjore). 1785. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.
 
Ustad Awalmir. Esta De Qasam Wi. Radio-Television Afghanistan Archives.
 
"Victorious Ukrainian Cossack with a Head of a Tatarin." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 29, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:22._Kozak_z_golovoju_tatarina.jpg.
 
Von Kaufman Portrait. 1880. Navoi State Library, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 29, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Von_Kaufman_portrait.jpg.

Producer: Kate Harding

 

Reveal Transcript

By the beginning of the 19th century, the British held enormous power in India. The British East India Company, which had started originally as a trading company, was now ruling several parts of India with its own military. The revenue from the company supplied massive wealth to the British economy, and at several times the company established trading monopolies that crippled other economies.

The company began pushing north into the Punjab and into Kashmir.

And at the same time, Russia pushed south into Central Asia, expanding its territory and its influence across the entire continent. Both empires began to realize that they would need to protect their borders — and their economies – from each other.

So the Russians wanted Russian goods to be sold in Central Asia and no British goods and similarly the British didn’t want to have any Russian goods.

Now, new tensions in the region were further hindering trade through Afghanistan, to the point where much of it was blocked all together.

Afghanistan had begun to disintegrate into unstable units after the death of Ahmad Shah Durrani. Both the British and the Russian empires realized that if they could win the support of local rulers, then they could ensure a favorable edge to their empire.

By 1837, the British demanded that the leader of Kabul – Dost Mohammed – cut off all ties with Russia in exchange for the British to protect him. But when the British refused to put the agreement in writing, Dost Mohammed quickly began negotiating with the Russians instead.

The British responded by declaring war and invading Afghanistan in 1838. That war, the First Anglo-Afghan War, would end disastrously for the British.

The Great Game had begun. And it wouldn’t just involve militaries. Like the Cold War of the 20th century, the Great Game would be about hearts and minds.

You had great imperial powers who were trying to improve or to create greater leverage, create greater influence over countries that were, to this point, independent in Asia – small countries like Afghanistan. But the way in which that competition between the imperial powers was played out was, as in the case of the Cold War, not done with standing armies, but rather through attempts at besting one another through gaining leverage in the courts of the independent kings and khans and feudal lords in central Asia.

Those attempts would continue well into the 20th century as Afghanistan became both a player and a pawn in the Great Game.

Great Britain and Russia vied for control over Afghanistan and its strategic mountain passes. But it wasn't about military might; it was about winning the hearts and minds of a people. The question remains whether Afghanistan was a pawn—or a player.

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