The United States has expanded secret military activities in the Middle East, Central Asia and east Africa to break militant networks, The New York Times said, citing a military document.
Alongside those goals are efforts to "prepare the environment" for potential attacks in the future by US forces, the paper added, although a specific country is not singled out in the document for a possible strike.
Defense officials also told the newspaper that the secret order, approved in September by top US commander General David Petraeus, permits reconnaissance ahead of possible military action in Iran if high tensions over its nuclear program continue to mount.
The order is focused on gathering intelligence in the target countries "by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others" to pinpoint threats, identify militants and forge "persistent situational awareness," the Times said citing the document.
While the directive, also aimed at improving ties with local friendly forces in the region, echoes moves by the administration of former president George W. Bush to expand security military operations outside of warzones, the new directive is designed to be a more longterm approach, according to the daily.
The expansion in clandestine operations may strain US ties with allies in the region such as Washington-friendly governments in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, Pentagon officials warn, said the Times.
The daily also noted activities under the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, as the military directive is named, does not need as much oversight - such as White House approval for operations, and reporting to Congress - as required with activities undertaken by the CIA.
More important operations still needed to be cleared through the White House's National Security Council, however.
Such ventures under the order are meant to be for activities that "cannot or will not be accomplished" by the regular military apparatus or other US spy agencies, officials told the Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.