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Despite the feelings of both major presidential candidates, the United States should end its involvement in Bosnia in December, as promised.

However, a much smaller contingent of U.S. troops could remain in a neighboring country as part of an international force ready to intervene in case hostilities resume.The Clinton administration has hinted for months that the U.S. mission in Bosnia could exceed its one-year timetable. Defense Secretary William Perry said this week the troops may remain in Bosnian territory if NATO decides an extended mission is necessary.

Republican candidate Bob Dole also said he would support extending the involvement.

By all measures, the peacekeeping mission has been a success. But if troops are to remain as a hedge against a resumption of violence, their mission would become indefinite.

Americans weren't enthusiastic when President Clinton sent troops to Bosnia last December. In a nationally televised speech, the president mollified some of their concerns by promising the mission would end on Dec. 20, 1996. It was not to be an open-ended or perpetual commitment.

Perry said the international force's main mission, that of separating warring factions and facilitating reconstruction, will be completed by December. He said a continuing deterrent force likely would be necessary but said one option would be for a small contingent of troops to assemble in Italy and prepare for air strikes if necessary.

That is the option he should stress in upcoming meetings. Americans can't afford to lose any more confidence in the promises of political leaders, particularly when the lives of their soldiers are at stake.