The Great Game: Afghanistan, British India and the Hundred Year War for India’s Northern Frontier

The Great Game refers to the hundred year geostrategic contest between Britain and Russia for control of Eurasia in the 19th century. 

The arena for the Great Game was all the lands, kingdoms and nations between the two Empires. At the beginning of the Great Game the territories of British India and Tsarist Russia were separated by a distance of almost 1,500 miles. At the end, all that remained between the two was Afghanistan – which at its narrowest, was a sliver of a 15 mile corridor, agreed upon mutually by the two behemoths to keep them apart. 

Afghanistan emerged as a modern nation, with its current territorial form, during the era of the Great Game. As a frontier state, Afghanistan was the stage on which the most powerful actors in this greatest geopolitical drama in the history of the world played their roles and left lasting legacies which resonate even in our age. 

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The nationalist historiography of Afghanistan traces the origins of modern Afghanistan to 1747, the year in which Ahmad Shah Abdali established the Durrani Empire with its capital at Kabul. The British Colonial State was emerged as a power in South Asia not much later, when the East India Company acquired territorial rights in Bengal, after the Battle of Plassey, in 1757. The first official, diplomatic contact between the two was established in 1809. In the interceding half century or so, the Durrani Empire had expanded up to the borders of Delhi and subsequently shrunk to a much smaller core around the twin capitals of Kabul and Peshawar, after which the British Colonial State itself expanded to incorporate not just Delhi, but also territories beyond. By the middle of the 19th century, the British Colonial State had expanded its borders further north, across the Punjab, defeating and annexing the Sikh Empire. From 1849 onwards, Afghanistan and the British in India were geopolitical neighbours and rivals. 

The book traces the interactions between Afghanistan and the emerging British power in India, from the first contacts to the construction of the final territorial form of the region which come to be known as British India’s northwest frontier.