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Sean Carberry

As I've been reflecting on the past 2 1/2 years that I've spent in Kabul, it's struck me how much has and hasn't changed. People continue to flood into the city, further straining its infrastructure and services.

But my neighborhood has seen mostly positive changes since I moved to it in 2012.

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Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation set a new record this year, according to an annual survey released by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Total cultivation rose 7 percent, compared with last year's record figure, and potential opium production rose by 17 percent.

In 2014, more than 550,000 acres of Afghan land were cultivated — that's approaching the total land area of Rhode Island.

What's causing the jump in opium cultivation?

On the wall at the Buddy Dive Resort on the Caribbean island of Bonaire there's an Old West-style poster. It sums up the feelings here about the beautiful lionfish, pictured with its plume of featherlike fins and amber and white stripes.

"Wanted: Dead," reads the poster.

Hundreds of service members and civilians from various nations lined the road to the landing zone at NATO headquarters in Kabul. They had gathered to salute the two U.S. Marines and two U.S. Army soldiers participating in Operation Proper Exit.

Moments later, two Blackhawk helicopters swooped in, kicking up dust and debris. The four service members disembarked and walk past the cheering audience. One soldier walks with a subtle limp. One Marine has a prosthetic right arm, and the left is missing below the elbow.

The desert sun beat down on the U.S., British and Afghan troops gathered at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Marines rolled up their flag as it came down, along with the NATO and British banners.

With the ceremony on Sunday, the Afghan army is now in command of Camp Leatherneck and neighboring Camp Bastion, the former British base.

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We often hear about the droves of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, but there are also people from places like Tajikistan, Iran and Iraq who are taking refuge in that country. But as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, Afghanistan has no laws to protect these asylum-seekers.

Habemus Praesidentem: there's white smoke in Kabul – figuratively speaking.

And like choosing a pope, selecting Afghanistan's new president has been a long and enigmatic process. Candidate registration began on Sept. 16, 2013. The first round of voting was on April 5. The second round on June 14.

And now, on Sept. 21, Afghan election officials announced that Ashraf Ghani is the country's the next president. He'll succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

There are certain sounds you don't ever want to hear in life — in Afghanistan or elsewhere. One is the sound of sirens and a fire truck pulling up outside your house.

But, when flames are roaring out of your garage and are lapping at the side of the house, the sirens are a welcome sound of hope.

It must have started, we think, when our aging generator caught fire. The flames don't even flinch at the spray of our household fire extinguishers.

As U.S. and NATO troops draw down in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters are growing bolder. They have been massing in larger and larger numbers and taking on Afghan forces across the country.

NPR producer Sultan Faizy and I spent a recent day making calls to ordinary Afghan citizens in some of the country's hot spots.

Sgt. 1st Class Tom Albert is with the Army's 2nd Engineers at the massive Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, and he's overseeing operation Clean Sweep here. It's a huge job, because American troops and equipment are scheduled to be out of Bagram and other bases by the end of the year.

The U.S. and Afghanistan are still trying to work out a deal that would allow nearly 10,000 military personnel to stay, but even that would be just a fraction of the force that's been here for the past 13 years.

One of the most heralded "success stories" of post-Taliban Afghanistan has been the growth of its independent media. Afghan and international news organizations in Afghanistan have largely enjoyed press freedoms rivaling those of many Western nations.

But today's expulsion of New York Times correspondent Matthew Rosenberg calls into question how much progress Afghanistan has made in terms of rule of law and press freedoms.

Afghans voted for a president on April 5. Then they cast ballots June 14 in a runoff between the top two candidates. Now all 8 million votes from that second round are being audited, a laborious process that includes daily arguments, occasional fistfights and yet another deadline that seems to be slipping away.

Afghans live in one of the world's poorest countries — but you wouldn't know that from their lavish wedding ceremonies. Families sell possessions and borrow money to rent expensive wedding halls for hundreds of guests. This wedding culture is part of the reason there's been a boom in women's dress shops in my neighborhood in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The Afghan soldier who fatally shot a U.S. major general on Tuesday had no sympathy for the Taliban, and his motives for the shooting are far from clear, according to his fellow soldiers.

Afghan officials have identified the attacker as Rafiqullah, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name. He opened fire on a delegation of NATO officials who were visiting the Marshal Fahim Military Academy outside Kabul. He killed Maj. Gen. Harold Greene and wounded 15 other NATO service members who were visiting the compound. Four Afghans were also wounded.

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There is renewed fighting in Kandahar as the outcome of the Afghan presidential election remains uncertain. And a new U.N. report says civilian casualties are up significantly from a year ago.

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This ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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The 2000 U.S. presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore went down to the wire, involved close scrutiny of the ballots and took weeks to sort out. And it left the country deeply divided.

Now, imagine a bitterly close election in a divided country with weak institutions, powerful strongmen, rampant corruption and thousands of armed militants running around.

That's what is playing out in Afghanistan right now as the country tries to determine who won the June 14 presidential runoff election.

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In Afghanistan today, supporters of presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, held what they called a national day of protest. They came out to echo Abdullah's charges that last Saturday's presidential run-off vote was rigged against him. Abdullah has since declared that Afghanistan's two electoral commissions are illegitimate and that he will not respect the results that are due early next month. NPR's Sean Carberry reports on the growing political crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

It was not long before the legitimacy of Afghanistan's presidential election was called into question. Within hours of polls' close, candidate Abdullah Abdullah claimed the vote was rigged in favor of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani. Abdullah has suspended his cooperation with elections commissions and called for a halt to vote counting. His claims of fraud — engineered by former President Hamid Karzai, he says — set the stage for an impending political crisis.

Afghans went to the polls on Saturday to vote for a successor to Hamid Karzai who's ruled since 2001. Former foreign minister Adbullah Abdullah faced off against former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.

When a popular Afghan journalist was killed shortly before the April election, his colleagues stopped reporting Taliban statements and downplayed violence on election day. Some say it was an acceptable display of nationalism; others see it as a sign that the young media need to get tougher and more objective in covering the runoff election.

Afghanistan is about to get a new leader for the first time since the Taliban were driven out in 2001 and replaced by the current president, Hamid Karzai.

Saturday's presidential runoff will be a historic event in Afghanistan, marking the first time in the country's long and often painful history that power has changed hands through the ballot box.

Karzai is barred from running again, and the only two names on the ballot will be Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Afghanistan, campaigning is underway for that country's presidential runoff election. Two candidates are competing to succeed President Hamid Karzai. And the vote is set for June 14. The first round was largely considered a success - with less violence and fraud than expected. And voter turnout exceeded expectations. But as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, there are growing concerns that the second round could be a far messier affair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ASHRAF GHANI: (Speaking foreign language).

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Last year, for the first time, Afghan forces took charge of their country's security. They generally held their ground but suffered record casualties. Despite that, NPR's Sean Carberry reports plenty of men are lining up to join the army.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

Joey's silky gold hair gleams in the afternoon sun. The big bundle of energy loves to cuddle. He also looks like he could lose a few pounds.

This herding dog is one of the many survival stories here at the Kabul shelter and clinic called Nowzad Dogs. The facility has rescued and treated hundreds of street animals in Afghanistan and has helped reunite hundreds of soldiers and contractors with animals they informally adopted while deployed in the country.

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