Experts have told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee the Obama administration places a high priority on building partnerships with Central Asian countries, and not only because of the strategic role they play in logistics for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, but also for a variety of other reasons.

Subcommittee chairman, Democratic Senator Robert Casey, said Central Asian countries are vital to the U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan.  But he stressed their proximity to Afghanistan is not the only reason Central Asian countries are important to Washington.

"From the threats to loose nuclear materials, to the rise of violent Islamic extremism, from the challenges posed by poverty, weak democratic institutions, as well as challenges posed by energy, U.S engagement in the region requires a strategic and long-term approach," said Senator Casey.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs George Krol said the main U.S. policy goals in Central Asia are to expand cooperation with the countries' governments and their people, to defeat extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to increase development of the region's substantial energy resources, to promote good governance and respect for human rights and to foster market economies. 

Ambassador Krol said in some countries, there is also real concern about preventing a failed state.

"For instance food security is a growing problem in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and we are looking to continue and enhance our food security assistance," he said.

The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, David Sedney, said Central Asian states play an even more crucial role for the Pentagon now that President Barack Obama has decided to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to secure the peace in Afghanistan. 

"Central Asians understand that they will be the first benefactors of this strategy," he said.  "And we see them as eager to help the United States, our allies and our partners win the war in Afghanistan."

Sedney said one of the biggest challenges the Pentagon faces in implementing the president's strategy is that there are no rail lines into Afghanistan, and the lack of roads, rail lines and infrastructure within the country.

Democratic Senator Edward Kaufman said he is concerned about a lack of basic freedoms, especially freedom of the press, in much of Central Asia.

"The good news is these governments repress terrorists, the bad news is they repress everybody," he said.

The members of the panel and the invited experts agreed that Central Asia will continue to be of pivotal importance to U.S. security interests long after U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are over.