With militant attacks surging and talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the government faltering, many Pakistanis are looking for someone to blame.
If the social-networking site Twitter is any indication of where the blame lies, it appears to be cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. A new hashtag, #BlameItOnImran, is trending upward, and has become the place for people to accuse Khan of being responsible for just about everything under the sun.
The hashtag was originally used by Twitter users to vent legitimate grievances about Khan, whose Tehrik-e Insaf (Movement for Justice, or PTI) party runs the government in the volatile northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. But the hashtag, born on February 17, has quickly become a catchall for both the serious and the comical.
Some Twitter users have criticized Khan for his pro-Taliban stance and his support for peace talks. Others blame him for everything from the battered economy and recent tensions with neighboring Iran to problems in their private lives, including the deaths of their pets and their relationship woes.
Taliban Lightning Rod
Some Twitter users have even accused Khan's party of starting the hashtag themselves in order to deflect attention away from their failings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Khan has come under growing scrutiny for his perceived soft spot for the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) even as the group is carrying out deadly attacks across the country. He has also been criticized for not speaking out against attacks perpetrated by the militants.
That has come as a government peace drive with the TTP has faltered and failed to stop a wave of deadly militant attacks that have claimed over 70 lives since talks began in late January. The 61-year-old, nicknamed "Taliban Khan" by his detractors, has become a lightning rod for criticism because of his outspoken support for the talks.
The mounting criticism has forced Khan onto the defensive. In a shift in rhetoric, Khan issued a strong condemnation of the TTP after one of the group's factions claimed to have massacred 23 Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers in their captivity on February 16. The claim, which has yet to be independently verified, shocked and angered many Pakistanis.
"Barbaric act of killing 23 FC soldiers held in captivity in Mohmand Agency by a TTP gp must be condemned in strongest terms," Khan tweeted on February 17, a day after the Taliban's announcement. "Clearly these killings r also a direct sabotage of peace talks in the most barbaric way possible," read the following tweet.
It is not only on Twitter where Khan has come in for a beating. Pakistani journalists and politicians have also vented their anger at Khan for his flawed policy of peace talks with the TTP.
In a commentary in Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper that went viral last week in Pakistan, columnist Cyril Almedia argued that Khan had made extremism "sexy." "The problem with Khan, the problem for all of us, is as simple as it's ugly: he's mainstreamed extremism," Almedia wrote on February 9. "Made it sexy, dressed it up, foisted it off on an audience that didn't really understand what he is selling or why."
For his detractors, those claims were substantiated earlier this month when the TTP named Khan among a five-member committee to represent them in peace talks with the government. Khan declined the offer and reacted angrily to suggestions that he was cozy with the militants.
For his part, Khan has not taken the criticism lying down. "Criticism a part of politics but am disappointed at sheer hypocrisy & crass opportunism of some politicians' targeting of PTI in dialogue," he tweeted on February 19.