LAHORE  - The message is very, very clear. It’s the army versus the government.  And if those in power are not receiving the signals being sent from the other side, nothing could be more unfortunate.

So far, the government has been insisting that criticism of Gen Pervez Musharraf doesn’t mean criticism of the institution of the army. And whenever somebody pointed out that there was unrest in the rank and file over the way the former president-COAS is being humiliated, the government functionaries strongly negated the impression and argued that the former army chief is just an individual, who is being held accountable for his personal unconstitutional acts. They said an action against Gen Musharraf would strengthen the rule of law and make the democratic system safer.

But the recent visit of Gen Raheel Sharif to the SSG Headquarters – and what he has been quoted as saying while talking to the commandos there – clears all doubts. His declaration that the army will safeguard its prestige and dignity “at all costs” was a very serious message to those using derogatory language against the former president-COAS.

Then, Gen Raheel’s Tuesday visit to the ISI Headquarters and the remarks he made there are also very significant in the backdrop of the allegation that the ISI chief was responsible for the recent attack on senior journalist Hamid Mir.

According to media reports, the COAS appreciated the ISI’s role in the national security and said: “All attempts to discredit and malign the institution will be foiled”.

Gen Raheel Sharif had to say this because the government had failed to defend the security agency when Amir Mir held the ISI chief responsible for the attack on his brother. The ISI bashing continued on a TV channel for several hours. The allegation provided various elements with a golden opportunity to criticise the ISI and its chief and question the role of the premier intelligence agency.

Quite significantly, the prime minister and the defence minister did not say a word in favour of the ISI chief, nor did the government take any step to have the smear campaign halted. Instead, they visited the Karachi hospital where the injured journalist is under treatment, a decision which reportedly sent negative signals to the army leadership. A federal minister’s remarks that the visit should make it clear which side the government is on was also not helpful in the already tense situation.

This made it imperative for the COAS to visit the ISI Headquarters and let everyone know that nobody would be allowed to revile the head of the institution.

It was after that visit that the defence ministry has approached the PEMRA with a request for cancellation of the licence of the TV channel responsible for the campaign against the ISI boss.

Everybody knows that the TV channel in question is a strong supporter of the government, and the prime minister and the defence minister will not like the channel to be proceeded against. But if they don’t throw their weight behind the army, the gulf between the government and the military leadership will widen, notwithstanding the claims that the government and the army are on the same page.  The findings of the three-judge judicial commission set up to probe the attack on the TV anchor will also play an important role in setting the future direction of the situation.

There are two possibilities. Either the allegation against the ISI director general will be found true or baseless. Both conclusions will have their separate implications.

In case the allegation is true, action against the ISI boss will become unavoidable. And in the prevailing situation it appears rather difficult for anyone to take him to task without further poisoning the government-military relationship.

Similarly, if the tribunal concluded that the charge against the ISI chief was baseless, action against the accusers will have to be taken. This will be equally difficult for the rulers because of their relations with the Mir brothers.

The third issue that the government will have to deal with these days is the fate of Gen Pervez Musharraf. The former president-COAS has approached the Sindh High Court with the request that his name be removed from the Exit Control List so that he could go abroad to inquire after his ailing mother.

The government wants the court to take a decision on the matter, but the court has sought the government’s point of view so that an appropriate judgment could be passed.

Until recently, the government was determined not to let Gen Musharraf leave the country even if the court allowed him. It was thinking of enacting a special law to bar Musharraf or any other accused of the treason charge from going out of the country on any pretext. But will the government really stick to this position even after the visible change in the military leadership’s mood, remains a million dollar question.