THE CRUCIBLE….This isn’t news to anyone, but it can’t hurt to repeat it. Here’s an excerpt from Evan Thomas’s cover story in the current issue of Newsweek:

When the United States struck Afghanistan in 2001, “there were probably 3,000 core Al Qaeda operatives,” says [John] Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School. “We killed or captured about 1,000; about 1,000 more ended up in distant parts of the world. And about 1,000 ended up in Waziristan. But the great terror university in Afghanistan is gone; they’ve relied on the Web since. They haven’t had the hands-on instruction and the bonding of the camps. That’s resulted in low-skill levels. Their tradecraft is really much poorer.”

The danger now, says Arquilla, is that the longer the Iraq War goes on, the more skilled the new generations of jihadists will become. “They’re getting re-educated,” he says. “The first generation of Al Qaeda came through the [Afghan] camps. The second generation are those who’ve logged on [to Islamist Web sites]. The next generation will be those who have come through the crucible of Iraq. Eventually, their level of skill is going to be greater than the skill of the original generation.”

Even the optimists don’t seem to think that we have more than about a 10 or 20 percent chance of winning in Iraq — for whatever definition of “winning” is currently in vogue. But it’s not a 20% chance of winning versus a downside of zero. There’s pretty much a 100% chance that the longer we stay in Iraq, the stronger al-Qaeda will get. Anyone who isn’t taking that into account isn’t taking the war seriously.