As U.S.-led military operations continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. relations with Central Asian nations have grown in strategic importance.

Central Asia sits at a strategic crossroads, surrounded by Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran. Elizabeth Dugan, of the conservative International Republican Institute explains why Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are important to U.S. operations in the region.

"Central Asia's proximity to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan highlights its strategic importance to the United States," said Elizabeth Dugan. "Among other challenges, the region faces the potential for radical Islamist in-roads into impoverished societies."

The United States has expressed its concern about the threat of Islamic extremism in this mostly secular Muslim region. The U.S. government says al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are present in Central Asia and pose a potential threat. Washington has warned its citizens in the region to be vigilant, and says U.S. interests could be potential terrorist targets.

Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher, told a congressional committee this week that the United States is pursuing a three-pronged policy in the region.

"General stability, in our view, requires a process of democratic change, and stability, in turn, provides for economic development and prosperity," said Richard Boucher. "Thus, we are determined to pursue all three sets of interests in a balanced way."

On the security front, Central Asia has been important to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, providing over-flights and refueling support, and as in the case of Kyrgyzstan, allowing use of its airbases. The United States is also working with the governments in the region to stem the trafficking of weapons, drugs and people.

Assistant Secretary Boucher says the United States is also working to improve economic vitality in the region by promoting regional cooperation and international investment. Boucher says one of the United States goals is to fund a greatly expanded Afghan power grid with connections to energy sources in Central Asia.

"It's a winning solution for all of them, providing much needed energy to Afghanistan and serving as a major source of future revenue for countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and we hope eventually expanding to the north into Kazakhstan and to the south into Pakistan and India, to really tie the power grids of the region together," he said.

In 2006, the United States allocated approximately $170 million in assistance to Central Asia, focusing its efforts on building civil society and promoting economic and democratic reform and institutions.

But human rights monitors say these efforts have yet to yield significant results. Paula Schriefer, of Freedom House, says Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country that has expanded freedoms, and only minimally.

"And while Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have remained entirely stagnate on their poor rankings, Uzbekistan has slid to the very bottom of our scale of not free countries, joining Turkmenistan and only six other countries in the entire world that Freedom House ranks as the world's very most repressive regimes," said Paula Schriefer.

Assistant Secretary Boucher says U.S. policy objectives for Central Asia are ambitious, but they cannot afford to fail. He says U.S. support to this region is a key ingredient to Afghanistan's stability, as well as to America's security.