Musharraf denies helping al-Qa'ida

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The row over accusations that Pakistan's intelligence service is helping the Taliban and al-Qa'ida to mount attacks on British and American forces in Afghanistan hotted up yesterday as President Pervez Musharraf held talks with Tony Blair.

The Ministry of Defence tried to play down the rising controversies created by the leak of one of its own reports, which claims that the Pakistani military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was actively backing Islamist extremists engaged in hostile action against Britain. The report said: "Indirectly, Pakistan, through the ISI, has been supporting terrorism and extremism whether in London on 7/7 or in Afghanistan or Iraq."

Tony Blair last night moved to defuse the row. During two hours of talks at the Prime Minister's official residence at Chequers, General Musharraf accepted an assurance that the report did not represent Government policy. A No 10 spokesman said that General Musharraf assured Mr Blair that he was determined to deal with the Taliban and reduce cross-border activity into Afghanistan.

Produced by an MoD think-tank, the Defence Academy, the document pointed to the military's support for the coalition of fundamentalist religious parties in Pakistan, the MNA. It stated: "The Army's dual role in combating terrorism and at the same time promoting the MNA, and so indirectly supporting the Taliban, through the ISI, is coming under closer and closer international scrutiny."

The British Government's policy of supporting General Musharraf as a balance to Islamist extremists is fundamentally flawed, said the report, because Pakistan is "on the edge of chaos".

Senior defence sources said the document was stating what has become patently obvious on the ground in Afghanistan for some time. One senior officer said: "One has only got to go to Quetta [across the Pakistani border] to see just how openly the Talibanand their fellow travellers are allowed to operate.

"This has been the case for some time. We know it, the Americans know it, the Afghans know it and the Pakistanis know it.The question is not whether this is happening, but whether Musharraf has the ability to stop it."

General Musharraf rejected the charges and said the ISI had been a "disciplined force" for the past 27 years. Earlier this month, he announced a truce under which the Pakistani army withdrew from the region in return for a Taliban "promise" of ceasing raids into Afghanistan.

But senior US officials have pointed out that attacks across the frontier against Western forces in Afghanistan have risen by 300 per cent since the Taliban "promise" was announced.

The report also says the British military hierarchy tried to begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq on the basis that it was fighting the Afghan war. But a full withdrawal is not now seen to be feasible, and senior defence officials have revealed that a force of up to 5,000, out of their present Iraq strength of 7,200, will have to stay in Iraqindefinitely.

The document says the British Army is "arguably losing, or potentially losing, on two fronts" - Iraq and Afghanistan. The report adds: "The wars in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq have not gone well and are progressing slowly towards an as yet uncertain result. Iraq has served to radicalise an already disillusioned youth and al-Qa'ida has given them the will, intent, purpose and ideology to act."