U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday urged Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors to play a role in securing and rebuilding the country as American forces withdraw over the next three years.
She also pressed authorities in the region about improving their record on human rights.
Clinton told an audience in Tajikistan that Afghanistan's reintegration into the regional economy would be critical to its recovery from war, as well as for better conditions in surrounding countries.
Afghanistan has been at "the crossroads for terrorism and insurgency and so much pain and suffering over 30 years," she said. "We want Afghanistan to be at the crossroads of economic opportunities going north and south and east and west, which is why it's so critical to more fully integrate the economies of the countries in this region in South and Central Asia."
Clinton was promoting the concept of a "new Silk Road" that would increase regional trade and commerce.
"We hope it will give rise to a network of thriving economic relationships around the region," she said. But, Clinton added, countries would have to remove or ease trade restrictions and reform commercial laws for the scheme to succeed.
On human rights, Clinton told a town hall meeting in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, that she would raise the issue with the leaders of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
She said she spoke to Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rakhmon, about her concerns over restrictions on press and religious freedoms. In particular, she cited attempts to register certain faiths and efforts to discourage younger people from embracing the worship of their choice.
Tajikistan, a Muslim nation with a secular government, is keen to prevent its youth from adopting extremist Islamic views.
But this kind of strategy, Clinton warned, often backfires.
"It could push legitimate religious expression underground and that could build up a lot of unrest and discontent," she told reporters at a news conference with the Tajik foreign minister. "You have to look at the consequences. We don't want to do anything that breeds extremism."
U.S. officials said she brought a similar message to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who they said has pledged during their 2 1/2-hour meeting in Tashkent to put in place reforms.
Clinton defended her meeting with Karimov, whose government has been accused of serious rights abuses.
"If you have no contact, you have no influence," she said. "And other countries will fill that vacuum who do not care about human rights, who do not care about fundamental freedoms. So despite the challenge, I would rather be having meetings raising these uncomfortable issues, pressing for change, than to be totally outside and let others come in that only want commercial, political, and other advantages."
Human Rights Watch has called on her to link improvements to continued U.S. engagement.
Clinton was the highest-ranking American official to visit Tashkent since the U.S. last month lifted 7-year-old restrictions on assistance to the country. The restrictions were imposed because of rights abuses.
Clinton arrived in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe on Friday from stops in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where she demanded greater cooperating in dealing with militants and encouraging insurgents to talk peace.
Clinton is at the tail end of a weeklong, seven-nation overseas trip that has already taken her to Malta, Libya, Oman, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She planned to return to Washington on Sunday.