* Demand for illegal guns climbs; AK-47 price triples
* Fears mount over prospect of Taliban return, civil war
* President dismisses chaos fears once West pulls out
* Unrest post-2014 a threat to foreign investment
KABUL, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Afghan father-of-four Mohammad
Nasir has a secret he's been keeping from his family.
The aid worker pulls a television bench out from the
living-room wall of his Kabul home. Behind it is a carved out
shelf, hiding what he hopes will keep loved ones safe when
Western troops withdraw by the end of 2014 -- an AK-47 assault
Arms purchases are soaring in Afghanistan, along with the
price of weapons, a sign that many Afghans fear a return of the
Taliban, civil war or rising lawlessness.
An assault rifle cost $400 a year ago. Today, some arms
dealers are selling them for triple the price.
And it's not just ordinary Afghans who are buying. Warlords
who control militias, and former anti-Soviet mujahideen fighters
are also boosting the trade.
"Whenever you turn on the TV or radio, the discussion is
2014. I'm not feeling safe now, it's become like doomsday for
Afghans," said Nasir, 48, storing the polished second-hand rifle
and slamming the TV unit back against the wall.
"People are saying security will collapse, or soldiers will
join warlords or the Taliban, so we need something to protect
our families when there's a crisis."
The brisk arms business is complicating the government's
efforts to pacify a country where the Taliban can strike
virtually anywhere, ethnic tensions can easily ignite violence,
and warlords are constantly jockeying for influence.
Afghanistan wants to project an image of stability ahead of
2014, a critical year when presidential elections will be held
and the 350,000 Afghan security force will take over security.
Any upheaval could also encourage regional powers like Iran
and Pakistan to try and gain influence before the Afghan
endgame, a widespread fear among officials and ordinary Afghans.
President Hamid Karzai calls the talk of chaos, Western
media "propaganda", and says Afghan security forces have made
But for many Afghans, the threat of a descent into chaos is
real so a growing number are investing in weapons, despite
exorbitant costs. The average Afghan family earns only about
$200 a month.
FEAR OF 2014 BATTLEFIELDS
Reuters spoke to buyers and sellers of illegal arms in five
provinces and each cited the foreign troop withdrawal as the
main driver of the underground trade.
"More people are buying weapons now, some to protect
themselves from kidnappers and robbers and others in
anticipation of things getting worse," said a Kabul resident in
his fruit shop, where a verse from the Koran on the wall calls
for God to guide Muslims on a straight path.
He bought a handgun illegally for $500, a model his dealer
says now fetches $1,000.
"If the situation changes in 2014 this area will once again
become a battlefield between former warlords who are still
powerful," he said.
The government has highlighted 2014 as a year to invest in
Afghanistan, which has relied on foreign aid for its economic
lifeline, and take advantage of its cheap labour and land
leases. Last month it held a televised conference promoting the
country's natural resources and its industrial potential.
In the 10 years following 2014, the government hopes
revenues from oil, natural gas, iron, copper and other mining
ventures will generate $4 billion in annual revenue.
But in the north, which is home to untapped oil and gas
resources, warlords and their supporters are now re-arming for
fear militants may seize power again, say residents.
Afghanistan's largest foreign investment project, the Aynak
copper deposit in Logar province, lies in one of the country's
most dangerous regions just south of the capital, Kabul.
Rocket attacks this year saw its Chinese workers temporarily
flee the project, which is run by China Metallurgical Group
(MCC) and Jiangxi Copper.
AK-47: A LEGACY OF WAR
Afghanistan has seen little peace in three decades. The
American-backed mujahideen drove out the Russians in 1989 after
10 years of occupation, but American interest faded quickly.
Much of Kabul was later destroyed in a civil war and more
than 50,000 civilians killed. The Taliban rose from the ashes of
that conflict and imposed their austere brand of Islam.
Afghans fear they will be abandoned by the United States
once again. Most don't want the Taliban to return, so they are
determined to protect themselves.
And there are plenty of weapons; arms left over from the war
against the Soviets, guns smuggled over the porous border with
Pakistan and those sold by former mujahideen commanders.
Russian or Pakistani-made AK-47 assault rifles are the
biggest sellers, followed by light machineguns. In some areas,
the militias go for rocket-propelled grenades.
To avoid arrest, arms dealers and sellers operate by word of
mouth, avoiding cellphones which may be tapped by authorities.
Deals are sealed in restaurants, homes or busy street markets.
Afghan authorities say they've had success in seizures of
illegal firearms but concede that in a country with a turbulent
history, their efforts may have little impact.
The government was deeply embarrassed when Energy and Water
Minister Ismail Khan, an influential former warlord, recently
called on militias to rearm to protect Afghanistan after 2014.
General Mohammed Najib Aman, a deputy of the anti-terrorism
department at the Interior Ministry, denies the illegal gun
trade is flourishing.
"Buying and selling of weapon, without being authorized,
is...illegal and they will be arrested," Aman told Reuters.
The government is encouraging people to seek licenses for
weapons so the authorities can track guns. Aman estimates
between 30,000 and 40,000 gun licenses have been issued.
But the positive message from the government and NATO-led
force runs counter to the unease on the streets, where the
Afghan security force has gained little public confidence.
"In my area there are lots of kidnappings, robbery and other
criminal activities and also lots of fear of 2014," said Shir
Ali, speaking in his pharmacy in northern Kunduz Province. "I
bought this very expensive Kalashnikov to protest my family."
'GUN CULTURE' ENTRENCHED
At least 57 foreign troops have been killed by rogue Afghan
security personnel this year. That figure represents about 13
percent of ISAF deaths in Afghanistan in 2012.
Lieutenant General James Terry, deputy commander of U.S.
forces in Afghanistan, said the country's "gun culture" was
partly to blame.
"This is a society that's really been traumatized by 30-plus
years of war," Terry said. "We also understand that a lot of
grievances and dispute resolutions are done, frankly, at the
barrel of a gun."
Former mujahideen commanders in particular are cashing-in on
the insecurity, using their wartime connections to acquire
handguns and rifles and sell at inflated prices.
Islamuddin laid down his weapons after the Taliban was
ousted in 2001, and became a used car salesman. These days
that's a front for his real money-making business.
He now sells light machine guns for 150,000 Afghanis
($2,900), double the value a year ago, and AK-47s for 60,000
Afghanis ($1,150), triple that of last year.
"People are worried, so they're buying guns now because they
might not be able to buy one when they most need it," he said
sitting in a hotel restaurant.
Militias also look to be heeding Ismail Khan's call to arms.
"The number of sales and the price of guns has gone up and
former mujahideen commanders who served warlords are buying more
and more from us every day," said one seller. "They're
anticipating civil war once the foreign troops leave."
Not all Afghans expect a war. Waheed Mujhda, a politics
expert at the Afghan Analytical and Advisory Centre, said even
warlords realised renewed civil conflict would not help anyone.
"Having so many people owning guns is a big problem for the
government, but it's not a political problem," he said. "There
may be small conflicts after 2014, but civil war is unlikely.
The last time, it was a failure that no one wants to see again."
But a growing number of people are not taking any chances.
"I'm sure if something goes wrong in 2014, I'll face lots of
problems," said Nasir. "If the Taliban return to power they'll
kill me because I work with the government. If warlords come to
power it's bad news for everyone."
(Additional reporting by Folad Hamdard in KUNDUZ and David
Alexander in WASHINGTON; Editing by Michael Georgy and Michael