NEW YORK – A former Afghan tribal leader accused of smuggling $50 million worth of heroin into the United States was so influential in his homeland that he formed his own army and teamed up with the Taliban, a prosecutor said Thursday at the start of his trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anirudh Bansal portrayed Bashir Noorzai as one of Afghanistan's most powerful men before the U.S. invasion in October 2001 that forced the Taliban to give up control of the country that was the launching pad for al-Qaida's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Noorzai's lawyer, Ivan Fisher, portrayed his client as a friend of the United States, saying he offered to use his power in Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism and the drug trade.
"He put it all on the table and said, `It's yours,"' Fisher said.
Noorzai presided over the Noorzai tribe, comprised of a million people in southern and western Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
The prosecutor said he used drug money to build his own army, police force, court system and "enough power that Bashir Noorzai became the law in western Kandahar" province.
When the Taliban came to power, it needed his help to establish itself, Bansal said.
The prosecutor said Noorzai paid the Taliban taxes from his drug proceeds and even benefited when the Taliban banned opium cultivation in 2000 because the ban drove up heroin prices.
In September 2004, U.S. agents summoned Noorzai to Dubai and told him they wanted his help in identifying sources of funding that supported terrorism.
Fisher said his client tried to help by agreeing to fly to New York for interviews with government officials. After 11 days of interviews, he was arrested on drug charges.