Disclaimer: I’m not WOLA’s Venezuela expert. I’ve only visited the country once. Most of what I know about the country comes from press and NGO reports. The following exercise is me considering the unthinkable based on years of studying defense and security. I’ve discussed the military intervention issue only briefly with WOLA colleagues who work on Venezuela. (As a rule, nothing on this site is a WOLA document that has gone through WOLA’s editing and approval process, unless specified as such. This is me, nights and weekends, thinking things through.)
On the evening of February 23rd, the number-one worldwide “trending topic” on Twitter was #IntervencionMilitarYA, or “military intervention NOW.”
This came after a day of frustrated attempts to deliver humanitarian supplies into Venezuela from across borders. Many Venezuelans, both inside and outside the country, appear ready to have a foreign (that is, the U.S.) military come in and get rid of the Maduro regime and its corrupt, cruel, authoritarian misrule. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who has refused to rule out a military situation in the past, tweeted that the events of the 23rd “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”
While it’s still unlikely—in the sense that “less than 50 percent probability” means “unlikely”—U.S. military involvement in Venezuela is a greater possibility now than it has been at any moment in this long crisis.
“Military involvement” doesn’t mean that the Trump administration is about to start firing Tomahawk missiles at the Miraflores palace in Caracas. Yes, the White House includes a vociferous proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion (John Bolton), and has strong domestic incentives to create a distraction (Mueller investigation near conclusion). But the War Powers Act allows the president to carry out a foreign military operation for only 60 days, plus a 30-day withdrawal period, if that operation lacks explicit congressional approval (like the 2002 authorization for use of force in Iraq).
The White House would need this approval, because it’s likely that any hostilities in Venezuela would last longer than 90 days. If the White House got it—or if it chose to ignore the War Powers Act, throwing the issue to the courts—what might U.S. military intervention in Venezuela look like?
Here, I argue that it would probably last quite some time: perhaps first as intense hostilities, then as a drawn-out insurgency. It would involve Colombia—and Colombia might in fact be the initial flashpoint. Civilian casualties would probably be in the low thousands. Damage to infrastructure would total in the billions, possibly tens of billions, of dollars. Open hostilities would end quickly: the Maduro government would probably collapse under military pressure. But combat could drag on for months, perhaps years, as a well-supplied chavista insurgency digs in.
The military option would not be easy. While it wouldn’t be as much of a quagmire as the Iraq war, a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would not be a quick in-and-out affair like Panama 1989, an analogy that Sen. Rubio is now explicitly employing.
How could a conflict start?
- I wouldn’t expect the Trump administration to launch an Iraq-style invasion without some pretext or provocation involving non-Venezuelans. There would have to be an initial spark, a “Gulf of Tonkin” moment, that makes the Maduro government appear to be the aggressor.
- A likely scenario here would be an incident on a border involving loss of life. The more populated Colombian border most lends itself to this scenario. In December, a high-ranking Colombian military officer told me that “shots had been fired” along the Colombia-Venezuela border 147 times over the previous two years. While most of those incidents were between non-state actors, like organized crime, this shows how volatile the border region already is.
- Hawks are thinking about this too. “#MaduroRegime has fired into territory of #Colombia,” Sen. Rubio tweeted on the afternoon of the 23rd. “Receiving reports of injuries after this attack on sovereign Colombian territory. The United States WILL help Colombia confront any aggression against them.”
- A serious border incident could escalate quickly. There are almost no diplomatic or military contacts between Colombia and the Maduro regime right now. That regime has all but pulled out of the OAS, complicating dispute resolution. The UN is playing a minimal role, and with Russia and China supportive of Maduro, the Security Council is hamstrung. There are almost no guardrails in place to prevent a border incident from escalating into full-on fighting between Colombia and Venezuela. Latin America would see its first major inter-state war since the 1930s conflict between Colombia and Peru.
- Vice President Pence, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, and probably then-Defense Secretary James Mattis have offered security guarantees to Colombia if it suffers aggression from Venezuela. So if Colombian President Iván Duque were to request it, the Trump administration would jump in.
So there would probably be a period of fighting between Colombia and Venezuela before U.S. forces got involved. What might that look like?
- We could expect only limited combat in the Colombia-Venezuela border zone, which is sparsely populated, with national capitals far away. Border zones might see some effort to damage larger cities and to control cross-border supply routes (which, ironically, could cripple the cocaine trade). Much of both countries’ oil infrastructure is also near the border—but attacks on oil facilities would be nationwide and aerial.
- A ground push to take the other’s capital would be a latter phase, probably well after the United States got involved.
- Within each country’s interior, aerial bombardments would be likely and widespread. Both countries’ air forces are among Latin America’s best-equipped. Venezuela’s is probably superior to Colombia’s, though not overwhelmingly so. Caracas has a fleet of Russian-made Sukhoi combat aircraft, which are probably in good condition, and some U.S-made F-16s, which probably aren’t. Bogotá has Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets and slower attack aircraft like
A-10s andSuper Tucanos. Aerial attacks would target infrastructure essential for transportation and economic activity. A longtime chavista official and politician speculated in July about using Sukhois to take out the seven bridges over the Magdalena river that traverses Colombia, “dividing it in two.”(Note added 2/24 2:15PM: Víctor Mijares at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes told El Espectador last year that only 4 of Venezuela’s 24 Sukhois are operational. That seems low to me, but even if true, a lot of damage could be done with 10-12 sorties each.)
- Expect even limited aerial attacks to do significant damage, with civilian loss of life, in large cities and at refineries and other economic targets.
- Naval blockades of major ports, at least on the Caribbean, would be more damaging to Venezuela than Colombia, which has ports on two oceans.
- Colombia’s ground forces are larger and have more combat experience, and would likely give Colombia the overall military advantage despite Venezuela having some air superiority. Venezuela’s forces are of uncertain loyalty, probably far more corrupt and indisciplined, weakened by years of promotions based more on political criteria than merit, and less funded. I suspect that much of Venezuela’s military equipment is precariously maintained and semi-functional. Colombia’s forces aren’t corruption-free, but have undergone reforms over the past 15 years that have somewhat improved discipline and professionalism, and its equipment is in better shape. Colombia would also benefit from imagery, intercepts, and other intelligence and advice from the United States. While conflict would be hugely costly for both countries, Colombia would probably be the eventual victor, if it came to that.
- A giant wild card, both at this phase and especially after a formal military defeat, is the chavista capacity for guerrilla-style fighting. The Venezuelan government has armed hundreds of thousands as “colectivos” and “Bolivarian Militias.” These, along with renegade Chavista elements of the security forces, intelligence agents, a small leftist insurgency called the FPL, and perhaps even members of Colombia’s ELN, could be factors in the fighting. However, these would probably play a larger role after the Maduro government is forced out, and I’ll discuss them more below.
- Another wild card is Russia. Don’t expect a commitment of Russian troops, but we’ve seen Moscow’s capacity for cheaper forms of intervention: cyber-attacks; targeted assassinations of leaders, often through poisoning; and spreading false information. Russia can also ensure that Venezuelan personnel have enough fuel and ammunition. China, which has loaned massive amounts to Venezuela to be repaid in oil, would probably stay on the sidelines.
If this happens, the United States would almost certainly get involved militarily. What would that look like?
- To envision this, we have to borrow from the U.S. performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. The early phases of a direct U.S. intervention would probably be marked by a “shock and awe” campaign of targeted bombardments, intended to force Maduro and his circle to leave power quickly.
- One hopes that this phase would be surgical, limited to military targets. One hopes, too, that U.S. forces would take better care this time not to destroy infrastructure on which the civilian population depends, and that it will be essential to rebuild quickly: the electrical grid, clean water, transportation, medical facilities.
- Still, it is hard to be surgical in a city of 3 million like Caracas. There will be collateral damage. U.S. bombs, missiles, and drones will kill civilians.
- If aerial bombardments don’t succeed in dislodging the regime, then expect a commitment of land forces. That could mean urban warfare and house-to-house fighting. This is the worst-case scenario, as it would mean being bogged down with far higher U.S. casualties than anticipated.
- A wild card here are the Venezuelan people themselves. About two-thirds to three-quarters of them oppose Maduro, but how many will welcome foreign occupiers? Will U.S. personnel be “greeted as liberators?” Will local leaders be able to overlook Donald Trump reviving U.S. gunboat diplomacy on a scale not seen in generations? And even if the Venezuelan people do welcome the foreign occupiers, can the chavistas’ irregular forces terrorize them from actively collaborating?
Between a U.S. invasion and multilateral efforts to silence the weapons, open hostilities would probably end quickly. As happened in Iraq, the Maduro government would almost certainly be pushed out. Top regime officials would either be killed or forced into exile. What would happen then?
- The good news is that Juan Guaidó would become the interim president for real, with actual executive power. As foreseen in the constitution, Venezuela would have to schedule free and fair elections as quickly as logistically possible. And these elections would have to happen super-quickly because, coming after a military defeat and amid a U.S. intervention or occupation, Venezuela’s next government would need a clear claim to legitimacy.
- A big question for this new government is how much latitude the Trump administration would allow it to have in making decisions about the future. What bureaucrats and officials get purged? Would Washington have veto power over which officials get put in charge of key aspects of government? In rebuilding its economy and energy sector, could the next government stray at all from free-market orthodoxy, or will it be compelled to construct a Milton Friedman utopia?
- The Venezuelan military would likely be purged of the most radical chavistas, but we would probably not see a repeat of the abolition of the Iraqi military, which made it very hard to keep order after the invasion, and fed the ranks of the insurgency. Still, some purged officers could go fugitive and become leaders of a violent “resistance.”
- Imposing order on what is already the most violent non-war country in the world will be a huge and expensive task. Preventing looting and generalized disorder—something the “Coalition Provisional Authority” failed miserably to do after the fall of Saddam Hussein—will require a big commitment. There will be much infrastructure to rebuild, too, so that people see quick improvements in their lives. Rebuilding will also have to happen in Colombia, if hostilities do indeed occur there. Billions, if not tens of billions, in foreign assistance will be needed.
It’s at this phase where the “Venezuelan insurgency” question moves to the forefront. How likely is this, and how large a challenge would it be?
- While I dislike recurring so often to the Iraq analogy (“fighting the last war”), it’s pretty likely that a post-conflict Venezuela would, as in Iraq, be challenged by insurgents committing acts of asymmetrical warfare. I have no idea whether the colectivos, Bolivarian Militias, expelled officers, renegade security forces, intelligence services, ELN, FPL, and others would collapse or persist. But it’s very plausible that many would persist, even without a unified leadership structure. They’d have illicit revenue streams, like cocaine, extortion, and fuel piracy, to sustain themselves. They could also be supplied by Russia.
- Look at the “Bolivarian militias” alone. They have between 500,000 and 2 million members. Many are poorly trained, and probably undisciplined. Still, if even 10 percent of the low estimate opt for clandestine warfare, that’s 50,000 fighters from this force alone. At its height, Colombia’s FARC had half that.
- And again, add to them the armed thugs in the “colectivos,” the FAES and other police units, the SEBIN, the FPL, the ELN, and any other radical elements who opt for violence.
- Already, GunPolicy.org, an international firearms observatory, estimates there are 2.7 million illicit firearms in Venezuela. That’s the highest estimate in South America after Brazil.
- This “insurgency” could make governance impossible in several regions and urban neighborhoods, perhaps for years. It could develop a big capacity to carry out terrorist attacks.
- Under this scenario, U.S. forces could find themselves in Venezuela for many months, or even a few years—perhaps even propping up the Venezuelan government with “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency campaigns. Even if it is only a tiny fraction of the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, it would cost many billions of dollars.
- The long-term presence of U.S. combat troops in a major Latin American country would be unpopular throughout the region, even among centrists. That would fundamentally remake the U.S. relationship with the Western Hemisphere, erasing goodwill efforts going back to FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.
Do other options still exist?
- Negotiations for their own sake are no longer an option. The Maduro government has used them to buy time, and they’ve gone nowhere.
- Negotiations about the terms of the Maduro government’s exit still make lots of sense. They offer hope of a soft landing. That means negotiating how to hold internationally certified, free and fair elections as soon as possible. That has to be the central topic of any future dialogues.
- This may include transitional justice for Maduro government and military officials, who are unlikely to exit peacefully if they believe they’ll be hanging from lampposts. Those who committed human rights abuses or gross corruption would have to be held accountable for what they did and make reparations to victims, but reduced sentences would be likely.
- A negotiated arrangement may even include allowing Maduro or other regime officials to run in elections—though they’d likely lose a free and fair election by a landslide.
- An International Contact Group, formed in early February, calls for dialogue aimed at organizing elections and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. It specifically avoids dialogues that the Maduro government could use to delay action further. The Contact Group involves the EU (European Commission), eight European governments, and four Latin American nations. As David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey explain, this mechanism is hopeful and deserves serious consideration.
- Even negotiations about elections will require consistent, external, multilateral pressure. Efforts that lay bare the Maduro government’s moral bankruptcy, like yesterday’s attempt to bring humanitarian aid, can help to apply that pressure. So do sanctions, as long as they affect the powerful inside Venezuela and don’t compound the suffering of the majority. And the Trump administration must avoid being perceived as getting out ahead of the rest of the region, which plays right into the Maduro regime’s narrative of resistance to a long history of U.S. bullying.
The status quo in Venezuela is tragic and untenable. I argue here that a military intervention could inflict serious harm, drag on at length, and compound the tragedy. Options still exist to thread the needle between these two extremes. Multilateral action and non-military pressure can still force the scheduling of free and fair elections. We must exhaust those options first.