BERLIN Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned NATO allies on Thursday against a rush to the exit in the war in Afghanistan as they begin transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces.
Clinton urged NATO members to avoid "political expediency" as the security transition gets underway and also renewed a U.S. call for coalition members to finance a $1 billion "trust fund" to support the Afghan military in coming years.
"We need to worry less about how fast we can leave and more about how we can help the Afghan people build on the gains of the past 15 months," she said in prepared remarks to a conference of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin.
With Americans increasingly weary of the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, Clinton reaffirmed the United States would start drawing down its forces there in July.
President Barack Obama has also backed NATO's goal, agreed at a summit in November, to begin the handover to Afghan forces this year with the aim of completing the transition by the end of 2014.
But Clinton urged alliance members to take care as they gradually reduce their forces that they not jeopardize recent gains on the ground or show signs of weakness to Taliban insurgents.
She warned allies to expect a "violent spring fighting season" as the Taliban seek to reassert themselves.
"We have to steel ourselves and our publics for the possibility that the Taliban will resort to the most destructive and sensational attacks we have seen. We have to send a clear message that we remain united," Clinton said.
Her comments underscored the increasing unpopularity of the Afghan war in the United States and Europe.
Clinton said recent gains on the ground were "fragile and reversible" and that "the Taliban need to know that they cannot wait us out."
"We need to underscore that we are transitioning, not leaving," Clinton said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on March 22 that seven areas, including a key city in a Taliban stronghold in the south, would be among the first to be shifted from NATO forces to Afghan control in July.
NATO initially planned to start the handover at the end of last year. But this was hampered by slow progress in building up Afghan forces and by an increase in insurgent violence, which hit its worst levels since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
NATO has stressed the overall transition will be gradual and will depend on security conditions.
Obama is under pressure at home to show results in the war effort and to stick to his promise to begin a troop drawdown this summer. But U.S. officials have been vague about the size of the initial withdrawal from current levels of about 100,000 troops and how quickly troops would be sent home.
She echoed Obama's condemnation of a radical fundamentalist U.S. Christian pastor's burning of a Koran last month and the killings in Afghanistan that were triggered by the incident.
"We deeply regret that hateful gesture and deplore the inexcusable attacks that followed on the U.N.'s compound in Mazar-e-Sharif and innocent Afghan civilians," she said.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Joseph Logan)