Drawing on published documents and research in Russian, Uzbek, British and Indian archives, this article explains how a hasty attempt by Russia to put pressure on the British in Central Asia unintentionally triggered the second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878 - 80. This conflict is usually interpreted within the framework of the so-called 'Great Game', which assumes that only the European 'Great Powers' had any agency in Central Asia, pursuing a coherent strategy with a clearly-defined set of goals and mutually-understood rules. The outbreak of the Second Anglo-Afghan war is usually seen as a deliberate attempt by the Russians to embroil the British disastrously in Afghan affairs, leading to the eventual installation of 'Abd al-Rahman Khan, hosted for many years by the Russians in Samarkand, on the Afghan throne. In fact the Russians did not foresee any of this. ‘Abd al-Rahman’s ascent to the Afghan throne owed nothing to Russian support, and everything to British desperation. What at first seems like a classic 'Great Game' episode was a tale of blundering and unintended consequences on both sides. Central Asian rulers were not merely passive bystanders who provided a picturesque backdrop for Anglo-Russian relations, but important actors in their own right.
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