By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan pledged on Saturday to help Afghanistan end a 10-year Taliban insurgency, as their mutual ally the United States prepares to start a gradual troop withdrawal.
Pakistan has historically maintained close contacts with the Afghan Taliban and is seen as an important player that can push insurgent groups to the negotiating table.
"Our aim is to support the peace process which is Afghan-led and it is (an) Afghan process for reconciliation," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Pakistan is ready to support whatever support they want ... it is in the interest of Pakistan to have a stable, peaceful, prosperous, independent and sovereign Afghanistan."
Pakistan has made similar pledges before, but ties between the neighbors have been hampered by mistrust.
Both Afghanistan and the United States say Pakistan is not doing enough to prevent militants from crossing the border to attack American-led NATO troops and Afghan security forces.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month that there could be political talks with the Afghan Taliban by the end of this year if NATO forces in Afghanistan made more military advances and applied pressure on the insurgents.
This summer foreign forces will hand security control in parts of Afghanistan to the national police and army, launching a nearly four-year long process that Western nations and Karzai hope will ensure the departure of all international combat troops by the end of 2014.
Osama bin Laden's killing in a U.S. raid in Pakistan last month has fueled calls in the United States for a faster drawdown of troops.
But it is not clear if his death will ease violence in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, close al Qaeda allies, staged a flurry of attacks to avenge his death.
Washington wants Pakistan to go after the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, which operates from safe-havens in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area and is one of the United States' deadliest enemies in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has denied allegations that it supports the pro-Taliban Haqqanis, but analysts say it sees the group as a counterweight to growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Gilani refused to be drawn on whether the Haqqani network could be brought to the negotiating table to help end the Afghan conflict.
"We have offered whatever the Afghan government wants from the Pakistan side. We are ready to facilitate," he told the news conference.
Gilani and Karzai chaired the first meeting of a joint commission on reconciliation and peace. The two sides vowed to continue "close cooperation, consultation and coordination," said a joint statement.
Pakistan, which backed the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan during the late 1990s, will be crucial to any attempts to stabilize its western neighbor.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 around the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Pakistan has often been accused of playing a "double game," promising the United States it will go after militants while still supporting some of them, an allegation it denies.
Nevertheless it is seen as an important ally to the United States and other NATO members as they seek to pacify the Taliban.
Pakistan says it is already too stretched fighting Taliban insurgents to take action against the Haqqani network.
But Islamabad may be more inclined to act after the United States, which provides billions of dollars of aid, discovered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden living in Pakistan.
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Alex Richardson)