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U.S. sends more firepower to Middle East as troops withdraw from Afghanistan



A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle piloted by a member of the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron takes off from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, in support of regional security operations, April 30, 2021.

Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais | U.S. Air Force photo

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has ramped up its military assets in the Middle East as U.S. and NATO coalition forces begin the colossal task of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

This week, two more U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers arrived at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, bringing the total number of B-52s on standby to respond to a Taliban attack to six.

“We have made it exceedingly clear that protecting our forces and the forces of our allies and partners as they too withdraw is a priority, it’s a main priority,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

“We have made plans to introduce additional ground force capabilities to, again, make sure that this is safe and orderly,” Kirby added. The Pentagon also extended the deployment of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group in the region and deployed a dozen F-18 fighter jets to provide additional support.

Kirby has previously said that U.S. Central Command, the combatant command that oversees American operations in the Middle East, will continue to assess the need for additional military capabilities as the departure of U.S. and coalition forces proceeds.

A B-52H Stratofortress aircraft assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, arrives May 4, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

Staff Sgt. Greg Erwin | U.S. Air Force photo

“The President has decided to end America’s involvement in our longest war and we’re going to do just that. And so far, less than one week in, the drawdown is going according to plan,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.

“Our focus is on making sure that we can retrograde our resources, our troops, our allies in a safe and orderly and responsible fashion,” Austin said, adding that in the future the Defense Department, hopeful of congressional support, plans to provide financial aid to Afghan forces.

Last week, the White House confirmed U.S. troops had begun the withdrawal process from Afghanistan and that the Pentagon proactively deployed additional troops and military equipment to protect forces in the region.

“Potential adversaries should know that if they attack us in our withdrawal, we will defend ourselves, [and] our partners, with all the tools at our disposal,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling on Air Force One.

“While these actions will initially result in increased forces levels, we remain committed to having all U.S. military personnel out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021,” she said, adding that the Biden administration is intent on a “safe and responsible” exit from the war-torn country.

Aircrew assigned to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, carry their gear into a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, April 27, 2021.

Staff Sgt. Kylee Gardner | U.S. Air Force photo

In April, Biden announced a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending America’s longest war.

The removal of approximately 3,000 U.S. service members coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which spurred America’s entry into lengthy wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Biden’s withdrawal timeline breaks with a proposed deadline brokered last year by the Trump administration with the Taliban. According to that deal, all foreign forces would have had to leave Afghanistan by May 1.

Since Biden’s decision to exit the country, the U.S. has removed the equivalent of approximately 60 C-17 Globemaster loads of material out of Afghanistan, according to an update from Central Command. More than 1,300 pieces of equipment, which will not be left to the Afghan military, have also been handed over to the Defense Logistics Agency for destruction.

The U.S. has also officially handed over one facility to the Afghan military. So far, Central Command estimates that the U.S. has completed between 2% to 6% of the withdrawal process.

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Israel Parliament to vote in new government, ending Netanyahu rule



Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

ABIR SULTAN | AFP | Getty Images

Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, gathered to vote in its new government — and new prime minister for the first time in 12 years — on Sunday.

The vote, set to ring in the leadership of a very diverse and cobbled-together coalition of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist parties, will oust Israel’s longest-serving leader Benjamin Netanyahu. It also spares Israel from the prospect of a fifth election in less than two years. 

Now, after putting up a fight and trying several political options to remain in power, Netanyahu will move aside and Israeli tech millionaire and lawmaker Naftali Bennett, whom many describe as more right-wing than his predecessor, will take the premiership. 

Sunday’s Knesset vote was marred by chaos and insults, as some right-wing lawmakers including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party hurled insults at Bennett, calling him a traitor for allying with leftist and Arab parties. At least four politicians were kicked out of the session by the speaker, Yariv Levin.

Bennett, formerly an aide to Netanyahu, continued his pre-vote speech amid the heckling, praising Netanyahu as having “worked hard and faithfully for the state of Israel.”

‘We’ll be back soon’

The right-wing 71-year-old’s leadership, in its 12th year, has been a lightning rod and a longtime dividing line in Israeli society. One Israel expert told CNBC that the country’s last election in March — its fourth in less than two years due to the complex and polarized nature of Israeli politics — really came down to whether the country wanted “Bibi or no Bibi,” using the outgoing prime minister’s popular nickname. 

Addressing the Knesset in English, acknowledging his party’s shift into the opposition, Netanyahu said: “We’ll be back soon.” He previously described the new coalition as a ” dangerous left wing government” that would be “bad for the country,” and said Sunday that he speaks for millions of Israelis who voted for him.

Netanyahu himself is facing several charges of corruption, which he denies. He had been examining ways to avoid prosecution, which would have been much easier had he remained in power. Meanwhile, he can still remain the leader of the Likud party.

The outgoing prime minister drew international criticism and attention for his heavy-handed military action against Gaza in May, during which Israeli airstrikes killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, in response to rocket volleys from Hamas that killed 12 in Israel over the course of the fighting.

Challenges ahead

The new coalition set to take power has been led by the centrist lawmaker Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor and one-time finance minister and head of the Yesh Atid party, and his unlikely governing partner Naftali Bennett, who leads the minority party Yamina. 

It’s highly unusual for the leader of a minority party to become prime minister, but that’s what was necessary for Bennett to join Lapid’s coalition — and his alliance with Lapid was the only way the coalition would gain enough party seats in the Knesset to have a majority.   

So the arrangement for Lapid and Bennett rests on the agreement that Bennett becomes prime minister, with the centrist Lapid as foreign minister, until 2023. At that point, Lapid will take over the premiership. 

But serious challenges lie ahead. The fragile coalition between Lapid and Bennett, and the parties whose support they had to secure to achieve the magic number of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset is a risk to itself, analysts say. The only thing seemingly holding it together is a common desire to unseat Netanyahu. But because of its incredibly slim majority of 61 seats in the 120-person parliament, all it would take is one defection for the government to collapse. 

And given the sometimes extreme divergence in views among the parties within it, particularly between Israel’s right-wing and Islamist politicians, the latter of whom are now in a governing coalition for the first time in Israeli history, this risk of gridlock and collapse remains a constant threat.  



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Bitcoin Taproot upgrade: what it means



The first bitcoin upgrade in four years has just been approved by miners around the world. It is a rare moment of consensus among stakeholders, and crypto experts tell CNBC it’s a pretty big deal for the world’s most popular cryptocurrency. 

The upgrade is called Taproot, and it’s due to take effect in November. When it does, it will mean greater transaction privacy and efficiency – and crucially, it will unlock the potential for smart contracts, a key feature of its blockchain technology which eliminates middlemen from even the most complex transactions. 

“Taproot matters, because it opens a breadth of opportunity for entrepreneurs interested in expanding bitcoin’s utility,” said Alyse Killeen, Founder and Managing Partner of bitcoin-focused venture firm Stillmark.

Unlike bitcoin’s 2017 upgrade – referred to as the “last civil war” because of the contentious ideological divide separating adherents – Taproot has near universal support, in part because these changes are fairly incremental improvements to the code.

What’s changing

Bitcoin’s makeover has to do with digital signatures, which you can think of as the fingerprint an individual leaves on every transaction they make.

Right now, the cryptocurrency uses something called the “Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm,” which is created from the private key which controls a bitcoin wallet and ensures that bitcoin can only be spent by the rightful owner. Taproot will switch over to something known as Schnorr signatures, which essentially makes multi-signature transactions unreadable, according to Alejandro De La Torre, Vice President at Hong Kong-headquartered major mining pool Poolin.

In practice, that means greater privacy, because your keys won’t have as much exposure on the chain. “You can kind of hide who you are a little bit better, which is good,” said Brandon Arvanaghi, previously a security engineer at crypto exchange Gemini.

It won’t translate to greater anonymity for your individual bitcoin address on the public blockchain, but it will make simple transactions indistinguishable from those that are more complex and comprised of multiple signatures. 

These souped-up signatures are also a game changer for smart contracts, which are self-executing agreements that live on the blockchain. Smart contracts can theoretically be used for practically any kind of transaction, from paying your rent each month, to registering your vehicle.

Taproot makes smart contracts cheaper and smaller, in terms of the space they take up on the blockchain. Killeen says that this enhanced functionality and efficiency presents “mind blowing potential.” 

Currently, smart contracts can be created both on bitcoin’s core protocol layer and on the Lightning Network, a payments platform built on bitcoin, which enables instant transactions. Smart contracts executed on the Lightning Network typically lead to faster and less costly transactions.

“Lightning transactions can be fractions of a penny…while a bitcoin transaction at the core protocol layer can be much more expensive than that,” explained Killeen.

Developers have already begun to build on Lightning, in anticipation of the upgrade, which will allow for highly specific contracts.

“The most important thing for Taproot is…smart contracts,” said Fred Thiel, CEO of cryptocurrency mining specialist Marathon Digital Holdings. “It’s already the primary driver of innovation on the ethereum network. Smart contracts essentially give you the opportunity to really build applications and businesses on the blockchain.”

As more programmers build smart contracts on top of bitcoin’s blockchain, there is also the potential for bitcoin to become more of a player in the world of DeFi, or decentralized finance, a term used to describe financial applications designed to cut out the middleman.

Today, ethereum dominates as the blockchain of choice for these apps, also referred to as “dapps.”

Why the wait

Though the bitcoin community has agreed to the upgrade, the rollout itself won’t happen until probably November. A lot of testing ahead of time will reduce the likelihood of something going wrong during an upgrade.

“Upgrades allow the – extremely remote – possibility of a bug entering the system, which would destroy confidence in the whole cryptocurrency system, effectively wiping it out – a ‘self-inflicted wound’ if you like,” said Jason Deane, an analyst at Quantum Economics.

Deane says this is why upgrade processes are so carefully tested, retested, and vetted, again and again, over very long periods of time, prior to being deployed.

Many also remember the disastrous migration of 2013, when an upgrade gone wrong resulted in bitcoin temporarily splitting in half.

“You don’t want different clients or miners in the protocol out of sync. That’s how catastrophic stuff happens,” Nic Carter, founding partner at Castle Island Ventures, told CNBC. “Because we don’t want a repeat of 2013, we have these extremely long lead times.” 

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Virgin Orbit in talks with SPAC for $3 billion deal to go public



Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, with a rocket under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner, takes off for a key drop test of its high-altitude launch system for satellites from Mojave, California, July 10, 2019.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Virgin Orbit, the satellite-launching spinoff of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, is in advanced discussions to go public at about a $3 billion valuation through a SPAC led by a former Goldman Sachs partner, CNBC confirmed Saturday.

The company is in talks on a deal with NextGen Acquisition II, a person familiar with the discussions told CNBC. NextGen II is a special purpose acquisition company led by George Mattson, who previously co-led Goldman’s global industrials group.

Sky News first reported the talks on Saturday, saying a deal is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. Virgin Orbit declined CNBC’s request for comment.

The company is a spin-off of Branson’s space tourism company Virgin GalacticVirgin Orbit is privately held by Branson’s multinational conglomerate Virgin Group, with a minority stake from Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala.

The company’s first demonstration launch in May 2020.

Greg Robinson | Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit uses a modified Boeing 747 aircraft to launch its rockets, a method known as air launch. Rather than launch rockets from the ground, like competitors such as Rocket Lab or Astra, the company’s aircraft carries its LauncherOne rockets up to about 45,000 feet altitude and drops them just before they fire the engine and accelerate into space – a method the company touts as more flexible than a ground-based system.

LauncherOne is designed to carry small satellites that weigh up to 500 kilograms, or about 1,100 pounds, into space. Virgin Orbit completed its first successful launch in January, and plans to conduct its second later this month.

Next Gen II raised $375 million when it completed its initial public offering in October. The funds would largely go to help Virgin Orbit scale its business. Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart told CNBC in October that the company was seeking to raise about $150 million in fresh capital.

Branson took Virgin Galactic public through a SPAC deal in 2019 with billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya.

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