Shortly before assuming office, the United States (US) President Joseph Biden Jr. nominated William Burns as the new Director of the US’ leading spy agency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Burns’ predecessor was a career intelligence officer embroiled in a controversy for patronising torture and managing to slide through a tumultuous relationship with Donald Trump.
Burns, meanwhile, had an impressive diplomatic career spanning a little over three decades. Until recently, he was serving as the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since 2014, a respected think tank, headquartered in Washington. He is a strong proponent of back-channel diplomacy. While this particular tradecraft is not actually part of the CIA’s mandate, the agency serves as an important platform for discreet dialogue on issues of particular concern for the US.
This will prove necessary since the incoming leadership at the Department of State (DoS) will try to undo the years of politicisation under the Former Secretary Michael Pompeo. Repeated targeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership and threats to the Iranian regime have only narrowed the space for dialogue with the US establishment.
Burns entered the Foreign Service in 1982 during the peak years of the Cold War during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. From 1982 – 1984, he was assigned his first overseas stint as a Consular/Political Officer in Amman (Jordan). He was then recalled to the DoS and appointed as the Staff Assistant at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 1984 – 1985, where he was part of the research activities on the US foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Africa region at large, including Iran.
From 1985 – 1986, he served as the Special Assistant in the office of the then Deputy Secretary of State, John Whitehead. From 1986 to 1989, he was posted to the National Security Council (NSC) Near East Office advising three different National Security Advisers, including General (Retired) Colin Powell.
He returned to the DoS as the Deputy Director and later Acting Director of the Policy Planning Staff between 1989 – 1993, during the administration of George H. W. Bush. In this capacity, he provided independent policy analysis and advice to three Secretaries of State during the George H. W. Bush administration, post the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Between 1993 – 1994, Burns was deputed for Russian language training at the erstwhile US Army Russian Institute in Garmisch, Germany.
Subsequently, from 1994 – 1996, he was posted as the Political Counsellor in Moscow (Russia), considered one of the most competitive assignments for the DoS and CIA career officers alike. From 1996 – 1998, during the Bill Clinton administration, Burns was recalled to the DoS and appointed as the Special Assistant and Executive Secretary to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. During this timeframe, he liaised extensively among the executive DoS leadership and with the White House, NSC and other federal agencies but was reassigned shortly before India and Pakistan publicly declared their nuclear capabilities in 1998. Thereafter, Burns returned to Jordan from where he began his career, albeit as an Ambassador, till 2001.
During the George W. Bush administration, from 2001 – 2005, Burns served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He was familiar with the workings of this bureau earlier and advised the then Secretary of State General (Retired), Powell. This was the second time Burns would develop a working relationship with Powell after his stint at the NSC during the last years of the Cold War. When Condoleezza Rice replaced Powell as the Secretary of State in the Bush Jr. administration (2005 – 2008), Burns was deputed as an Ambassador to Russia. He was appointed Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs in 2008 by Rice and remained at this position for a while during Barack Obama’s first administration, reporting to the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton till 2011. The continuity in office as an Under Secretary during both Republican and later Democrat governments speaks volumes about the bipartisan confidence on his abilities as a professional diplomat. From 2011 – 2014, he served as the Deputy Secretary of State in both Obama administrations alongside Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. He wanted to resign earlier but reportedly delayed his resignation twice, including on Obama’s request.
Perspectives on South Asia
In the early years after the Cold War, especially after the demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Hindu fanatics (1992), Burns examined closely, the tense communal relations in India and believed that Hindu-Muslim violence was a “harsh reminder of the fragility of South Asian politics”. He labelled South Asia as an “extremely dangerous neighbourhood” and foresaw that the risk of nuclear war was “greater” in the Pak-India context. He would continue upholding this belief more than two decades later as the President of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
After 9/11, Burns’ views on South Asia’s nuclear rivals appear to have somewhat tilted in New Delhi’s favour. While arguing in favour of waivers to India for a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, two months prior to the passage of the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative, Burns urged the then Secretary of State Rice that Washington may have to accede “to Indian demands to considerably weaken the nonproliferation (sic) aspects of the exemption”. To repudiate concerns among the NSG member countries, Burns advised Rice to assert what he believed was “a strategic moment to welcome India into the global mainstream”. After the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, he was part of high-level discussions on terrorism with India’s establishment. Later on, he commented that an intelligence dossier on the attack shared by India had concerns with “real merit” that needed addressing “more effectively”.
Similar sentiments were echoed in a memo to Rice’s successor Hillary Clinton that India was, “without doubt an emerging Great Power with a growing role in Asia and beyond[…]building a true American alliance with India is a mission worthy of our patience and investment[…]To accomplish our missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we can regularly engage India on regional security priorities[…]We can also institutionalise (sic) a permanent counter-terrorism relationship. Thanks to our close intelligence coordination after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, and repeated Indian requests to consult intensively on our post-9/11 experience, we have a firm foundation on which to build”.
There was a brief hiccup in the US-India diplomatic comfort when Burns insisted during his 2009 visit to India that the resolution of Kashmir issue would require taking into account “the wishes of the Kashmiri people”. This was construed as an endorsement of Pakistan’s state narrative, though Burns was quick to emphasise the importance of the US following up on Pakistan’s commitment to act against the jihadi groups allegedly operating from its soil for cross-border attacks. When the Obama administration signed an Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, popularly known as the Kerry-Lugar Bill providing $7.5 billion assistance to Pakistan, Burns assured New Delhi that the financial transfers would have “conditions attached” so that the money is used “only for development”.
Burns commented a few months later that ISIS as an entity “is a tiny minority and a perversion of Islam”. This personal belief is reassuring since Pakistan has been accused by both Afghanistan and India of supporting ISIS, an assertion that becomes even more ridiculous considering that the Taliban and ISIS are in stark contrast to each other. It was uncovered later that the US military was actively providing some form of “limited support” to certain Taliban elements to combat ISKP.
Shortly after the US wrapped up Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011, known infamously as the “Abbottabad Raid”, it was William Burns (then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs) who asked Marc Grossman, the then Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), to visit Islamabad and explain Washington’s position. Grossman’s visit was scheduled beforehand to discuss the US military drawdown from Afghanistan but these issues went to the backburner. Ironically, Burns was initially reluctant to send Grossman to Islamabad. It may be the case that consultation with the senior US leadership had led to a review; the Obama administration perhaps did not want to humiliate the Pakistani leadership and lose a critical regional ally.
During his visit to India in October 2012 as Deputy Secretary of State, Burns highlighted aspects of shared regional goals with India, asserting that “there has never been a moment when India and America mattered more to one another. And there has never been a moment when partnership between us mattered more to the rest of the globe”.
In May 2014 during a visit to Pakistan, Deputy Secretary of State Burns met the then Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif and discussed the security situation along the Pak-Afghan border including the possibility of targeted strikes. Reports indicate that subsequent to these meetings, CIA drone strikes regularly resumed (after an almost 6-month hiatus), killing several militants including those associated with the Haqqani Network, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al Qaeda.
The international terrorist organisation ISIS (“Daesh”) announced the establishment of its Asian branch in January 2015, called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISKP) which has an operational support base in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Burns commented a few months later that ISIS as an entity “is a tiny minority and a perversion of Islam”. This personal belief is reassuring since Pakistan has been accused by both Afghanistan and India of supporting ISIS, an assertion that becomes even more ridiculous considering that the Taliban and ISIS are in stark contrast to each other. It was uncovered later that the US military was actively providing some form of “limited support” to certain Taliban elements to combat ISKP.
Despite his visibility into Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, Burns has remained somewhat precautious in his optimism. Speaking after the launch of the Carnegie India in 2016, Burns acknowledged “concerns” about the progress in Pakistan’s action against terrorist groups that were hostile toward India and the former’s acquisition of the F-16 aircraft that gave an aerial warfare edge to the Pakistan Air Force.
The Big Picture
William Burns’ career in the US Foreign Service was largely focused on matters pertaining to the Middle East, Iran, and Russia. His ominous assessment of the threat of Pak-India nuclear war is reassuring and indicates that he possesses strategic foresight. Bear in mind that these concerns were first echoed five years before both arch-rivals went public with their tests.
As the key architect of the back-channel negotiations with Iran during the Obama era, leading up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Burns has remained equally mindful about the fact that the rise of the new “great powers” has “challenged the geopolitical primacy of established players” and that “no country will be able to navigate difficult global currents on its own, or by force alone. That’s especially true for the United States, which is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block”. The CIA, under Burns’ leadership, may witness strengthening of the “Five Eyes” intelligence network. Lawmakers in the US are keen to expand the network to include India alongside Japan and South Korea.
Reports of mentionable bilateral cooperation between the CIA and India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), are scarce. It was reported in 2018 that CIA and R&AW officials met in Washington at the same time when India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval was meeting Gina Haspel, Burns’ predecessor in the CIA. The Indian side hoped to acquire vital intelligence leads from the CIA, which could help R&AW make gains against ISIS, Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and even the underworld criminal Dawood Ibrahim. There have been subsequent reports about Indian agencies busting ISIS cells based within the country and seizure of Ibrahim’s assets.
The Abraham Accords proposed during Donald Trump’s administration resulted in the “normalisation” of ties between Israel and certain Arab states, binding them into a convergence of security interests (primarily against terrorist groups and Iran) that would give sufficient space for Mossad’s growing relations with its Arab counterparts. With reference to the unfinished Afghan peace process, the CIA could have breathing space to negotiate on better terms with the Taliban, supported by counterparts in Pakistan.
More pressing would be intelligence on terrorist operations and financing, especially in the Middle East and Asia. Burns would be assisted with the return of David Cohen as the Deputy Director, who oversaw sanctions on Iran, Al Qaeda, and Russia and is known for his expertise in financial intelligence and anti-money laundering. Equipped with his past policy analyses and assessments of regimes in the Near East and the interplay of Pak-India security dynamics, it would not be an arduous task for Burns. If anything, the CIA’s Directorate of Analysis could be overhauled to provide more rigorous regional assessments in tune with his prior experience at the Policy Planning Staff and Carnegie Endowment.
Under the prevailing circumstances, as in the past, the most resourceful avenue of joint US-India intelligence cooperation would be China. This could, however, also focus more on Afghanistan, where India’s soft power has already made it an important stakeholder. New Delhi could also help Burns open a communication channel with Iran that could help the CIA make a more nuanced assessment about the actual status of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, reducing dependence on inputs from the Mossad and inputs from the Gulf allies.
It is worth mentioning that in 2019, Burns’ predecessor Haspel kicked-off her international travels from India (January), followed by Afghanistan (April) and Saudi Arabia (November). Broadly, however, it is expected that Russia would remain the primary focus for CIA, largely due to the purported Russian infiltration into the US networks and political interference during elections. Cohen was directly involved during the Obama administration on this matter and, coupled with Burns’ own experience on Russia, would prove to enrich for Biden Jr.
Burns’ headship of the CIA may be reassuring for Islamabad, considering his knowledge about the fragilities involved in the South Asian nuclear dynamics and the tensions emanating from the communal rhetoric that could escalate any future conflict dynamics. To ensure he has the proper picture, Burns would logically call for improved intelligence coordination with both Pakistan and India. His personal belief that India “deserves” a place among the comity of emerging “great powers” may raise concerns about tilting his orientation more favourably toward New Delhi.
Once he gets access to all-source intelligence, Burns might uphold the same objectivity he displayed while drafting the “Perfect Storm” memo that cautioned George W. Bush administration from invading Iraq for fears of igniting sectarian tensions, a scenario that materialised soon enough and led to the emergence of groups such as ISIS.
What is actually recorded in history, of course, is yet to be seen.