In a recent interview with Face the Nation, President Trump was asked, “What would make you use the U.S. military in Venezuela? What’s the national security interest?” This question came not long after National Security Advisor John Bolton was photographed holding a yellow legal pad on which “5000 troops to Colombia” was written. President Trump replied, “Well I don’t want to say that. But certainly, it’s something that’s on the—it’s an option.” Although U.S. military intervention in Venezuela may seem unlikely, the contingency plans for just such an operation are no doubt being drafted and revised by Pentagon defense planners assigned to U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
The U.S. military, including the special operations community, has a long history in the region of conducting everything from joint-DEA counter-narcotics operations to foreign internal defense missions, humanitarian actions, counterterrorism missions, counter-insurgency operations in places like Honduras, and, on occasion, outright invasions in the case of Panama in 1989 and Grenada in 1983. There was even an odd planned operation to invade Suriname in the 1980s.
Although Grenada was a success, the mission itself was somewhat dicey and reaffirmed the need for a joint special operations command. In Operation Just Cause in 1989, the U.S. military initiated the largest strategic airlift operation since World War Two, inserting into Panama in order to defeat the Panamanian Defense Forces, protect U.S. nationals, protect the Panama Canal Zone, and remove the illegitimate dictator Manual Noriega.
SOUTHCOM will almost certainly draw upon lessons learned from Operation Just Cause as well as significant operations and logistical movements related to the Global War on Terror, but a potential military action directed against Venezuela will not resemble anything the U.S. military has undertaken in the past. Jose Delgado outlines some of the key differences in his recent paper, “Venezuela, a ‘black swan’ hotspot.”
For starters, the U.S. military maintained an archipelago of military installations in Panama prior to the invasion. Third Battalion of 7th Special Forces Group was forward deployed to Ft. Gulick, Panama and was able to conduct operational preparation of the battlefield (OPB) missions, drawing up strike packages. Venezuela also has a far larger population than Panama did, with a much larger military that includes fighter aircraft and tanks. The PDF consisted of about 15,000 troops. By contrast, the Venezuelan military has in the neighborhood of 115,000 troops. Although some senior officers have defected from Maduro’s camp, an estimated 20 percent of the country is still loyal to the current president and espouse a revolutionary socialist ideology. In the event of a U.S. military action, these individuals would almost certainly fight an unconventional campaign—yet another insurgency that would quickly bog down U.S. forces after the initial military victory by the United States.
A U.S. military action in Venezuela could take many forms. There is a contentious border dispute between Venezuela and Colombia. Venezuela could also launch an invasion of oil-rich Guyana in order to distract from domestic political issues as Delgado makes mention of in his paper. One could speculate based on John Bolton’s notes that the current plan may be to beef up the longstanding U.S. troop presence in Colombia, using Special Forces to work by, with, and through indigenous proxy forces.
One could easily foresee U.S. Special Forces advisors supervising Colombian special operations soldiers to train Venezuelan pro-democracy insurgents. This model was attempted in Jordan and Turkey in the war against ISIS with limited success.
With the number of military confrontations America is involved in worldwide, Venezuela may be another “wait and see” affair until it becomes completely unmanageable, but as with most things, time will tell.