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Raqqa drone video shows ISIS execution square
01:42 - Source: CNN

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American officials have not yet formally announced that the fight is won

"I totally changed rules of engagement," Trump said

Washington CNN  — 

President Donald Trump took credit for the fact that ISIS is in retreat during an interview Tuesday, claiming that ISIS wasn’t on the run before because “you didn’t have Trump as your president.”

The comment comes as US-backed forces fighting ISIS in Raqqa said “major military operations” in the city have ended and that the jihadists have lost control of their self-declared capital.

American officials have not yet formally announced that the fight is won, but the development marks a significant moment for the war on ISIS.

“I totally changed rules of engagement. I totally changed our military, I totally changed the attitudes of the military and they have done a fantastic job,” Trump said on “The Chris Plante Show.” “ISIS is now giving up, they are giving up, there are raising their hands, they are walking off. Nobody has ever seen that before.”

When Plante asked why that hadn’t happened before, Trump took the bait.

“Because you didn’t have Trump as your president,” he said. “It was a big difference, there was a big, big difference if you look at the military now.”

Once Raqqa is completely liberated, US-backed forces will have claimed two of their most significant battlefield victories against ISIS while Trump has been president – the other being the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, Iraq this summer.

Touting his administration’s success in the fight against ISIS is nothing new for Trump who – according to senior defense officials – turned to the Pentagon earlier this year to raise the public profile of efforts to defeat the terror group on the battlefield.

But Trump has often skimmed over the fact that the ISIS campaign began under former President Barack Obama – including operations to retake both ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

In May, Trump’s top generals held a news conference to emphasize the impact of changes made since Trump ordered a review of the ISIS strategy when he took office. It was the news conference the President wanted, officials told CNN at the time.

“Because you didn’t have Trump as your President”

Trump continued that theme in his interview on Tuesday, attributing key victories against the terror group to the “big, big difference” he has made on the military since assuming the presidency.

One such difference – according to Trump – was that he “changed the rules of engagement.”

Trump has overseen a steady transfer of power from the White House to the Pentagon since becoming President, handing off several warfighting authorities that previously rested in his hands – and those of past presidents of both parties – to the Pentagon and the commanders overseeing the US military campaigns.

Trump administration officials have described the changes as a deliberate effort to empower the military and reverse the protocols that defined the Obama administration’s oversight of military campaigns that much of the top brass described as micromanagement that needlessly hamstrung commanders.

Although not to the same extent, some of those complaints also stemmed from the era of President George W. Bush, military experts said.

Military officials have publicly said that the move has helped accelerate progress in the fight against ISIS.

“No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington, DC, has to authorize tactical movements on the ground,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said in May. “I have absolute confidence as does the President, our commander in chief, in the commanders on the ground as he’s proven by delegating this authority to me with the authority to further delegate it and they’ve carried it out aggressively.”

The decision to allow commanders more leeway in undertaking operations on their own authority was highlighted in May by Mattis as a key change to Trump’s ISIS approach – but it is difficult to credit that decision for the totality of the battlefield success against ISIS.

Credit for local forces?

While Trump was quick to attribute the success against ISIS to his own impact on the US military, he failed to highlight the fact that the fight in Iraq and Syria has long been led by an array of local forces – with the US and coalition members acting in a supporting role.

The US and its coalition allies used artillery and airstrikes to back the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mix of 55,000 Arab and Kurdish fighters, in their assault on Raqqa.

The SDF is made up of 31,000 Kurds and 24,000 Arabs, but the coalition said the battle for Raqqa was primarily carried out by Arab fighters.

US military advisers accompanied SDF units as they pushed into the inner areas of Raqqa, but local forces made up the majority fighters tasked with retaking the city.

A diverse coalition of about 100,000 local troops led the mission to retake Mosul.

In addition to his comments on ISIS, Trump said on Tuesday that he would have “loved” to get out of Afghanistan but “had to stay in” because it has become a breeding ground for terrorists.

In August, Trump outlined his plan for the 16-year US war in Afghanistan, vowing that the US would find victory while no longer “nation-building.”

The President declared he would no longer announce troop levels but would focus on allowing US forces to target the Taliban and other terrorist groups wherever they were in Afghanistan.

Trump also claimed on Tuesday that the US was losing the war on terror before he came in.

“I changed rules of engagement about a month ago and we are fighting now to win as opposed to fighting to stay there. We were losing, now we are winning,” Trump said.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.