ZABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan soldiers fighting the Taliban have grown confident in their ability to combat an agile insurgency. But for those on the front lines, one question casts a shadow over the young army's progress.
What if the United States - and its funding - vanish from Afghanistan?
That outcome has become increasingly probable with President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow the United States to maintain a small military presence here beyond 2014. Now, Afghan troops are beginning to raise their voices against Karzai, demanding at great personal risk that he sign the pact.
"If the international community leaves, there is no question that we will lose ground to the Taliban," Col. Mohammad Dost, a battalion commander in Zabul province, said in an interview. "It's the biggest worry for every soldier now."
In recent weeks, soldiers have voiced that concern in local television interviews and in newspaper op-eds, despite not being authorized by the government to speak on the topic. For some, the consequences have been grave.
"As everyone wants the agreement to be signed, we also call for its signing," Gen. Momand Katawazai told TOLO News, a Kabul-based television station, last month.
Days later, officials at the Defense Ministry told Katawazai that he shouldn't bother coming to work any more. He hasn't been formally fired but expects to be.
"It's been a huge headache," he said.
In the past few years, it was extremely unusual for an Afghan military officer to publicly criticize the Afghan government. But even though Katawazai got in trouble, other soldiers have continued speaking out.
"If the Americans leave, Afghanistan will be a lone sheep, left in the desert for the wolves to eat," Capt. Abdul Zahir said in an interview in Zabul.
"Without the BSA, our arms will be cut off," said Sgt. Maj. Wahid Wafa, referring to the accord by its initials. "We will become victims of the Taliban."
Military officers have passed messages like those up the chain of command, all the way to Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who discussed the agreement early last month at a meeting with the top Afghan field commanders, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
Mohammadi declined to comment for this report.
The United States has spent more than $50 billion to build a 352,000-person Afghan security force over the past decade.
If the two countries don't sign a security pact, U.S. officials say they will be unable to keep even a small group of military advisers in Afghanistan. But perhaps even more important, the absence of an agreement would probably keep the United States from providing funds to the Afghan security forces.
Maintaining those forces will cost about $4 billion per year. In 2013, the Afghan government collected about $1.7 billion in revenue and had to rely overwhelmingly on foreign aid to fund its public institutions.
The U.S. military estimates that the Afghan government can afford to pay only about 12 percent of the annual cost of the Afghan forces in the next few years.
Afghan soldiers rattle off the resources they would lose if the U.S. military departs without leaving a residual force: support from American jets and helicopters, logistical assistance and artillery training, among other things. But the lack of financial aid would create an even more dire problem.
"If no one pays our salaries, the Taliban will grow even stronger than us, thanks to Pakistani assistance," said Capt. Mohammad Nabi. Like many Afghans, he believes the Pakistani government funds, or at least tacitly supports, the insurgency. Pakistan denies doing so.
The bilateral security agreement is a constant topic of conversation among soldiers, while on base or during missions. On a recent multi-day operation in Zabul, Afghan soldiers huddled around a television each night, listening for news about the accord.
U.S. officials say it is theoretically possible that Congress could appropriate funding for Afghan forces, even if a bilateral security agreement isn't signed. But without American troops on the ground, any U.S. oversight of that money would be difficult, if not impossible.
The United States and NATO had long envisioned leaving about 12,000 troops beyond 2014 to continue advising Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations. Now, recognizing that plans for such a force may fall through, the coalition has accelerated some of its training programs.
Its advisory program with the Afghan air force, for example, was due to last until 2017. That mission has been retooled so that it can be completed, albeit in abbreviated form, by the end of the year, according to British Royal Air Force Air Commodore David Cooper, the NATO-led coalition's director of air support.
Like the Afghan officers, U.S. military officials recognize that a total withdrawal would leave the Afghan forces strapped.
"We've worked very hard to build the Afghan security forces. Giving them the ability to sustain themselves in the future is going to be critical," said Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force. "We still need to mature the systems, the processes and the institutions that are necessary to sustain a modern national army and police force. We need to address shortfalls in leadership and training, and in capabilities such as aviation, intelligence, medical and logistics."