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The thought that this won't be the last Christmas that U.S. troops spend in Bosnia doesn't exactly lift holiday spirits.

But President Clinton was inarguably right in admitting that the mission won't be finished by next summer. He also was right in scrapping the whole idea of setting artificial deadlines in the first place.

NATO forces -- including a U.S. contingent -- were sent to Bosnia to do a job. They should remain either until that mission has been achieved or until it's clear that the goal is unachievable.

Neither condition exists in Bosnia today, as Clinton made clear while visiting troops there on Monday. Marking a withdrawal date on a calendar makes it much less likely that the mission -- a stable peace -- ever will be achieved.

That's because setting a target date for withdrawing U.S. forces, regardless of conditions on the ground, practically invites intransigence on the part of Bosnia's antagonists.

As long as a withdrawal date is circled in red, their aim can be simple: Wait out NATO by lying low until the target date arrives, then resume hostilities as soon as the troops leave.

Framing the withdrawal in terms of mission goals -- such as creation of a local police force and stable political structures -- rather than deadline dates can help change the mind-set in Bosnia. Once the combatants know that NATO will be there until the job is done and self-sustaining institutions have been created, they will see the handwriting on the wall and realize the futility of obstructionism.

Significant progress already has been made since the 1995 Dayton accord called for a peacekeeping force. Fighting has subsided. Some refugees are returning home, undoing the efforts of those who undertook "ethnic cleansing." A few war criminals -- though not the most notorious ones -- have been arrested and sent to The Hague for trial. Elections also have have been held.

All of that points to a Bosnia moving slowly in the right direction. None of it would have been possible without the presence of the 30,000-member NATO peacekeeping force that includes 8,500 U.S. troops.

But it's also true that the peace is a fragile one that is likely to fall apart should NATO withdraw now. And the European nations would almost certainly withdraw their forces if the U.S. troops were to pull out in June 1998, as had been scheduled.

Too much has been accomplished in Bosnia to let it all go down the drain like that. Scratching that artificial withdrawal date was the right move.

U.S. troops cannot, however, stay there forever. The key now is the measures of success that the Pentagon and NATO come up with next month to determine when the mission has been achieved and how many troops will be required to achieve it.

Concrete benchmarks -- such as the creation of an independent media, civilian control of the military and the arrest of indicted war criminals -- are the types of measures that can point the way to an eventual withdrawal while leaving behind the seeds for peaceful coexistence.

Beyond the obvious humanitarian interest in making the Bosnian peace permanent, the U.S. security interest should be equally obvious after two world wars. Stabilizing conditions in the Balkans can help keep Europe from erupting again and sucking U.S. troops into another war. That is the context in which a Bosnian mission with concrete goals, rather than deadlines, can best be defined.

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