A short history of the great game and its players
Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan are often called the graveyard of empires. This reflects a historical, and partly romantic, memory of when these areas became the centre of rivalry between global powers. This was dubbed the Great Game by the British and Russian in the 19th century.
The Anglo-Russian Great Game 1813-1907
The so-called classical Great Game, a phrase popularised by Rudyard Kipling, was about British and Russian machinations against each other in Central Asia. Russia was expanding into Central Asia at the time. This led to British concerns that the Czar's forces would reach Afghanistan and threaten India, the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. Britain invaded Afghanistan twice in an attempt to put more friendly regimes in Kabul, the first famously ending in the complete destruction of the invading British army. The Great Game ended when the two imperial powers became World War I allies.
The Anglo-Soviet Great Game 1917-1941
The creation of the Soviet Union triggered another round of geopolitical manoeuvring between London and Moscow. Britain fought a third Afghan war to settle the border between Afghanistan and British India — the present-day Durand Line. Kabul's rulers played Britain and the Soviet Union against each other to maintain its own independence and build up its military resources. The advent of World War II ended this rivalry.
The Soviet-American Great Game 1979-1989
The Soviet Union sent troops in Afghanistan in 1979 to support the Moscow-friendly regime in Kabul against widespread tribal revolts. "The Russians won the Great Game," complained US strategists at the time. Then the US and its allies began providing financial and military support for the Afghan insurgents, especially after 1981. The resulting mujahedin rebellion attracted non-Afghan Muslims who came to fight alongside them, including Osama. The US lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, leaving the mujaheding to fight it out among themselves. The Taliban were to emerge from this chaos.
The 9/11 terrorist attack led the US to invade Afghanistan with the help of anti-Taliban Afghans of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban regime fell and was replaced by the present Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. The US reduced its military presence soon after, allowing the Taliban to return as an insurgency in 2003. Newer Taliban groups arose, including the Tehreek e Taliban in 2007 that targeted Pakistan. Islamabad, however, has played both sides of the fence, helping the US while providing safe havens for Taliban fighters. Growing domestic weariness of the war and the weakness of the Karzai government is leading the US to move towards some sort of negotiated settlement with at least part of the Taliban.