By Rob Taylor
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan and Pakistan have upgraded a joint commission for peace in a bid to end Afghanistan's near-decade old insurgency, and have the support of the U.S. for the move, leaders of the two countries said on Saturday.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said he and former Afghan President and Peace Council chief Burhanuddin Rabbani would lead talks involving the military and intelligence chiefs from both sides of the border for the first time.
"Today's visit, I believe has been one of the most historical and unprecedented meetings, because all the stakeholders were with us," Gilani said, at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The original commission was set up in January.
Pakistan, which backed the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan during the 1990s, will be crucial to any attempts to stabilize its western neighbor.
Its intelligence services are still believed to have close links with many of the insurgent groups they funded and supported during the war against the Soviet Union and beyond, including the Taliban leadership which is based in Quetta.
Many lower level insurgents also find safe haven in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
Karzai said he had discussed the move with U.S. counterpart Barack Obama during a phone call last week, and the upgraded commission had the full backing of the United States.
"We welcome the participation of the U.S. in this tripartite arrangement...We have recently seen more interest by the U.S. in the peace process," he told the news conference.
But both Gilani and Karzai were keen to emphasize that the peace process would remain "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned."
TALKING TO TALIBAN
Acceptance has grown at home and abroad that talks may be the route to peace in Afghanistan, with U.S. and NATO leaders also examining their long term-commitment to the war, which is at its deadliest since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001.
Karzai established the peace council in October, after a national "peace jirga" of community leaders. His broader peace plan includes reintegrating Taliban "foot soldiers" and finding asylum in third countries for irreconcilable leaders.
He said talks with the Taliban would be addressed within the framework of the joint commission.
Pakistan, long blamed for stoking the insurgency in Afghanistan to thwart rival India, is nevertheless seen as an important ally to the United States and other NATO members as they seek to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The United States has increased pressure on Pakistan to hunt down Islamist militants in a bid to turn around the war in Afghanistan, but those efforts have been complicated by a growing political crisis in Islamabad.
The rising power of militant groups within Pakistan has tied up the country's military and put pressure on its government, but also contributed to a desire to seek some kind of peace in Afghanistan, as a collapse back into civil war could make the country a safe haven for attacks on Pakistan.
"We both are suffering, we are brothers, we are neighbors, we should fight a common enemy therefore we should have a greater cooperation between both countries," said.
"There should be no blame game, because we want to stop terrorism."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Andrew Marshall)