Bashir Noorzai was in custody in New York and was awaiting arraignment later Monday on charges he tried to smuggle 500 kilograms of heroin with a value of more than $50 million into the United States. authorities said.
An indictment alleges Noorzai and "has a symbiotic relationship" with the Taliban, U.S. Attorney David Kelley said at a news conference.
Authorities said he was arrested while traveling to the United States, but declined to give details. Kelley also refused to comment on reports that the defendant has ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network.
"It's not something that's part of the case," Kelley said.
Between 1990 and 2004, the defendant and his organization "provided demolitions, weapons and manpower to the Taliban," Kelley said. "In exchange, the Taliban allowed Noorzai's business to flourish."
The Taliban protected Noorzai's opium crops, its heroin laboratories in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its drug transportation routes out of the country, prosecutors said.
In 1997, Taliban authorities "seized a truckload of `morphine base' that was owned by Noorzai," the indictment said. But the drugs were quickly returned "with personal apologies from Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban," the indictment added.
In Afghanistan, a senior counter-narcotics official welcomed the arrest.
Afghan authorities "appreciate the arrest of drug smugglers anywhere in the world, so long as there is proof against them and they are not just released the next day," Gen. Zaher Akbar, head of a U.S.-funded police unit charged with destroying Afghanistan's prolific opium crop, told The Associated Press.
Last year, the White House added Noorzai and nine other people and organizations to the list of most drug lords, bringing the number of those designated on the list to 48 since it was started in 2000. The White House gave Noorzai's name as Haji Bashir Noorzai.
Under the 1999 Drug Kingpin Act, drug traffickers and their related businesses identified on the list are denied access to the U.S. financial system and all trade and transactions involving U.S. companies and individuals.
The militant Taliban militia had ruled Afghanistan until it was toppled by the United States in late 2001. Taliban-led militants are still operating along Afghanistan's mountainous eastern border with Pakistan.