A photograph purportedly showing Ronald Reagan meeting with the leaders of the Taliban (Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement) at the White House has been shared online for many years, along with a purported laudatory quote from the 40th U.S. president, “These Gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s Founding Fathers”:
This enduring meme is wrong on more than one account. The group pictured here are not Taliban leaders, the photograph was not taken in 1985, and Reagan did not compare the pictured group to America’s Founding Fathers. (In this particular meme, even the name “Reagan” is misspelled.)
According to the Ronald Reagan Library, the above-displayed photograph was taken in 1983, and it captures then-president Reagan meeting with Afghan rebel leaders to discuss the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.
While the Reagan administration did help fund and equip the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (and rebel groups elsewhere) so that they could fight against the Soviet occupation, it is inaccurate to say that the former president met with the Taliban, as at that point that group did not exist:
This photograph is from 1983, when Reagan and the CIA were dancing around the idea of arming Mujahadin fighters in order to fight back against Soviet incursion in Afghanistan. The result was a well-armed, well-trained group of jihadis who resisted (some say defeated) the onslaught of superior Soviet weaponry.
Once the Soviets retreated, the U.S. lost interest and pulled the funding. Osama bin Laden took interest, and filled the vacuum, later fathering the Taliban.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The quote frequently attached to this photograph is a paraphrased version of something said by President Reagan, but he was not speaking about either the Taliban or Afghan opposition groups at the time. He made the comment about contra rebels in Nicaragua during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1985:
They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help. I’ve spoken recently of the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. You know the truth about them. You know who they’re fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance. We cannot turn away from them, for the struggle here is not right versus left; it is right versus wrong.