Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's cryptic message triggered some concern within Pakistan because of the army's history of seizing power in military coups. But experts saw the statement as less of a threat and more of a sign of the shifting power balance in Pakistani politics.
"Armed forces draw their strength from the bedrock of the public support," Kayani told a group of officers at army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi. "Therefore, any effort which wittingly or unwittingly draws a wedge between the people and the armed forces of Pakistan undermines the larger national interest."
The army is still considered the strongest institution in the country, but the generals have slowly ceded power to Pakistan's civilian leaders and judges in recent years. The shift has occurred as the army has been bogged down in a bloody war against a domestic Taliban insurgency.
Several recent actions by the Supreme Court have brought home the end of the army's once inviolable status. In a landmark ruling, the judges recommended last month that the government launch legal proceedings against a former army chief and head of intelligence for allegedly bankrolling politicians in the 1990 election.
The court has also pressured the military for allegedly snatching scores of people off the street in southwest Baluchistan province, where the government faces a separatist insurgency, and holding them without charges.
Kayani appeared to be hitting back at the judiciary in his comments Monday.
"We all agree that strengthening the institutions, ensuring the rule of law and working within the well-defined bounds of the constitution is the right way forward," said Kayani. "Weakening of the institutions and trying to assume more than one's due role will set us back."
The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, showed no indication of backing down in a speech he made Monday after Kayani issued his statement. He cited the Supreme Court's constitutional "supremacy over all other institutions and authorities."
"Gone are the days when stability and security of the country was defined in terms of number of missiles and tanks as a manifestation of hard power available at the disposal of the state," Chaudhry told a group of civil servants. He said it means providing people with "social security and welfare nets and to protect their natural and civil rights at all costs."
The media has also become more critical of the army, especially after it was unable to stop the U.S. from staging a unilateral raid to kill al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden last year. This scrutiny has made it more difficult for the generals to interfere openly in politics.
The government has applied some pressure by investigating retired army generals for alleged corruption.
"I think it is a turning point in the history of institutional balance in Pakistan," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "I think the army feels a little bit isolated and somewhat powerless to manage the institutional balance the way it did for decades."
Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn newspaper, said he thought Kayani's comments were likely driven by pressure from within the army.
"The army is facing a period of unprecedented public criticism of its handling of security affairs and the untouchable status of army officers, and that has created some unease among the rank and file and the leadership," Almeida said. "Kayani was probably trying to allay some of those concerns and reassert himself as the leader who will stand up for his institution."
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.