By Rob Taylor
KABUL (Reuters) - In the crush of people in Kabul's Shahzada money market, conspiracy theories are a currency as hard as the bundles of cash in the hands of bearded traders trying to divine their future.
And the theory going around - amid the din of shouted exchange rates - is that Afghanistan's rich are preparing again to shift their money and lives from the country over fears of chaos or civil conflict after foreign troops leave.
"The money will all go out of Afghanistan. It is always like that. As soon as the foreign soldiers leave all the problems come back," says money changer Hajji Asadullah, gripping bundles of U.S. dollar bills, Gulf currencies and tattered local Afghani notes, all wrapped tightly in rubber bands.
Three years from the end of NATO combat missions and a total transfer to local security, Afghan officials are thinking hard about how to stop the flight of hard currency like dollars, euros or scrip from Gulf countries like the UAE that usually happens when nervousness overtakes their countrymen.
"It is the main topic of conversation now," says Naseem Akbar, who heads Afghanistan's Investment Support Agency and whose job is to lure investment, rather than stop it going out.
"The worry is about the country going into crisis, and parallel to that is that from now until 2014 we must work out how to avoid such a calamity."
PROPERTY A WEATHERVANE
A U.S. government audit report last year found it was almost impossible to track where much of the billions of dollars spent on security and development projects in the last decade had gone given the country's dysfunctional financial tracking system and poor bank oversight.
Wealthy Afghans have for years locked their money into safe havens and property elsewhere, with Dubai and its man-made Palm Jumeirah island being favored locations, with an estimated $8 billion stashed away in the Arab emirate.
But Haji Sher Shah Ahmadzai, the millionaire owner of a group of construction companies in Kabul, said property prices at home jumped by 15 percent at the start of last year after foreigners pledged to support Afghanistan well beyond 2014.
Confidence however began leaching away with the September assassination of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed an Afghan peace council trying to launch talks with the Taliban.
It took a further blow as the United States, the Taliban and the Afghan government circle each other over possible peace talks in the Gulf state of Qatar, which could eventually see the austere Islamists return to Kabul as a political force.
"A flat cost around $220,000 months ago, but now it costs around $140,000 because of the uncertain situation," Ahmadzai told Reuters in his plush, heavily-guarded office in the upmarket Wazir area of central Kabul.
SIGNS OF UNCERTAINTY
Hardly any Afghans expect the Taliban to be strong enough to again rule the country by force, but memories of past brutality are enough to worry people about their influence, even as President Hamid Karzai tries to reassure his country.
In 2009, ahead of the last Afghan election, millions of dollars -- much of questionable origin -- made its way out of the country in suitcases and even on pallets loaded into aircraft, according to police at Kabul's main Airport.
Former vice president Zia Masood was stopped entering Dubai carrying cash worth $52 million and released without question, according to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that appeared later on the whistleblower website Wikileaks.
In 2010 the Afghan government took over Kabul Bank -- the country's biggest commercial bank -- after a run on deposits caused by revelations that the bank's owners had lost millions of dollars they loaned to themselves to purchase property investments.
The investment support agency's Akhbar said that without steps to build confidence political and security gains in the past decade, uncertainty will dry up new investment.
"The short answer is that any sign of uncertainty is a major blow to investment," he said, calling for a redoubled effort by Karzai's government to tackle serious corruption and fix woeful infrastructure.
Afghanistan is perennially among the world's most corrupt nations listed by Berlin-based anti-graft body Transparency International.
CAR, APPLIANCE SALES DROP
But growth has defied that reputation, averaging around 9 percent in recent years as war and aid spending worth more than $50 billion fuelled a spending boom in Kabul's dusty streets, now choked with private cars as well as NATO convoys.
At a dealership for luxury Lexus SUVs, salesman Mir Alam said once reliable Afghan ministers had stopped buying in favor of armored vehicles, while private buyers had also dried up.
"It's because of the Qatar talks. Car prices are not up, but still we haven't sold any for the past three months," Alam said. "Afghan businessmen have already left Afghanistan, or they have their money in hand in case they need to escape."
Mohammad Jawid, who sells appliances to the wealthy at the upmarket Kabul City Centre, said sales topping $5,000 a day before September were down to under to $500 now.
And the worries are the same for Abdul Haddi's Sarak Khumar electronic company.
"I've lost more than 60 percent of my customers. The rich I know are already out of Afghanistan, or just waiting to see what happens," Haddi said.
WORLD BANK WARNING
The World Bank has warned that growth that hit an unsustainable 21 percent in 2009-10 could collapse in the next few years as aid projects wind down and funds are re-directed into areas like health and education.
The country's medium-term growth and stubbornly high unemployment would depend on the government's ability to manage the transfer of security from international to national forces, and ensure political and fiscal sustainability, the bank said.
The Afghani currency has slipped following its rise through 2010-11 on the back of large capital inflows, sliding from 46.2 to the dollar to around 49, making foreign havens and currencies more attractive.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who heads the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul, said Afghanistan needed a stronger system of capital controls, adding the agency is setting up financial investigations units to deal with not only laundering of money from the opium trade, but also monitor cross-border cash flows.
"It is a huge concern," he said. "This country cannot afford this and we need to have better capital controls and have the money within this country invested in productivity, so we can share the employment that is so required."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Mirwais Harooni)